Cyber security is a proactive game, experts say

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FARMINGTON — Richard Hammer shared comforting words to a group of more than 170 people curious about cyber security on Feb. 21 in the face of an image that few would be pleased to see.

“This is actually the only scary slide in the entire presentation,” he said to the audience’s relieved laughter, motioning to a projection of a 2013 letter from the Department of Energy that informed Hammer that his information – including social security, bank accounts and credit cards – had been compromised.

“What I’m urging you to do is not be afraid,” Hammer continued, adding “I urge you to use the technology to protect yourself and your children, then you can stop it immediately.”

Hammer, a senior cyber security engineer at Los Alamos National Lab, gave the keynote presentation – “Hardening Your Identity” – at the third annual CyberCon event on Feb. 21 and 22 in Farmington. The event featured experts in cyber security discussing risk management, cyber threats to electric utilities, incident response and career opportunities in the field.

Related Story:CyberCon hosts FBI, cyber security experts in 3rd annual event

The two-day CyberCon 2018 conference can have an impact on a person, according to John Thompson, chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees, who shared his impressions from the 2017 conference.

“You’re in for a real treat,” Thompson said during welcome remarks. “It was shocking. I went home and changed all my passwords and hid all my stuff after listening to (the 2017 presentations).”

Though the concept may be daunting to some, Thompson said there’s no escaping the importance of cybersecurity in our modern society.

“It’s become clearly obviously to me that we’re totally reliant on technology right now,” Thompson said. “Whether it’s a situation where we lose our internet connection, or it’s an actual cyber-attack, we’re completely out of business. You guys are all here for a reason so it’s not a news flash to you, but for small business guys like me, this is really becoming – if not (already) – the most critical aspect of our business, is having a safe and security technology and internet.”

The event focused on how people – both as businesses or professionals and as individuals – can proactively protect their online identities and presence. Toni Hopper Pendergrass, president of San Juan College, said though cyber security can seem like a distant threat, the Four Corners area has seen a very real example of the importance of cyber security.

“We’ve had some pretty devastating things that we thought would never happen here in northwestern New Mexico,” Pendergrass said during opening remarks. “We feel that we’re a pretty isolated community and these things don’t happen to us, but in January, you know that the City of Farmington, all of their computer systems were hit with a very serious ransomware attack, asking for bitcoins. … If you think your computers are safe, they’re not at all.”

Related Story:City of Farmington recovering after SamSam ransomware attack

Farmington resident Sandra Benally said the first-hand knowledge of cyber security vulnerabilities brought her back to the conference for her third time.

“It’s interesting for my business, for where I work, and also at home,” Benally said on Feb. 21. “I work for the City of Farmington Electric Utility in compliance and safety. … The thing that I’ve really learned, because of the ransomware attack that happened with the City of Farmington, is that it can happen to anybody, and as secure as I thought we were, it still affected our computers. It didn’t take any information, which is good, but we don’t realize the depth of it until it actually happens to you.”

CyberCon also aimed to start awareness and action early. More than 330 middle and high school students from around the Four Corners region attended the second day of the conference, which was geared toward youth. Topics covered during the youth day included an introduction to cyber security studies and careers, how to stay safe online and how to help fight crime online.

A student panel of San Juan College High School students also addressed an array of topics, including secure passwords, recognizing spammers, cyberbullying and social media awareness.

Cameron Collyer and Bree Morrow, first-year SJCHS students who participated in the panel, said because technology is such an integrated part of our lives, being aware and capable of protecting yourself should be part of any internet user’s skill set, because the threat will continue to advance.

“This is very important because almost everything we do is on the internet,” Morrow said. “There’s like a trace everywhere – anyone can see what you do – so having that cyber security (awareness and) having a way to protect yourself is crucial.”

“With the advancement of supercomputers that are coming in this era, people are going to find doors, which are ways to get through code,” Collyer added. “Hacking is always going to be there, it’s just going to get stronger and stronger. By studying cyber security now, we can prepare ourselves later against these new hacking ideas.”

Megan Petersen covers business and education for the Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or mpetersen@daily-times.com.

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