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Tech Town Hall: Retired general says ‘counties on front lines’

Retired Gen. John R. Allen reviews foreign state cyber threats to  U.S. computer systems.  Photo by David Hathcox

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Retired general: There's no cyber cavalry system coming over the hill to help your compromised system

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen presented a sobering picture July 22 at the Tech Town Hall. America, he said, is threatened by state and non-state actors intent on penetrating the nation’s institutions in order to sow suspicion and discredit institutions at the heart of democracy such as America’s electoral system.  

Allen, a four-star general, served 45 years in military service, including stints as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, and commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

There is no doubt in his mind that Russia breached election systems in 39 states before last November’s election and hacked the email accounts of 120 election officials the night before the election began.

In a wide-ranging presentation, he showed how a group of nations and non-state actors, he labeled the “4 + 1 + 1” — Russia, China, Iran and North Korea plus ISIS plus transnational criminal organizations — have taken to cyber warfare for profit and power.

North Korea, for example, was behind the world’s largest ransomware attack in May, the WannaCry virus. China, too, has engaged in cybercrime, breaking into 115 U.S. corporate IT systems and stealing unsecured information. “Don’t be surprised if China’s new J-20 fighter jet looks a lot like our F-22,” he said.

Iran is thought to have 150,000 individuals engaged in cyber warfare and espionage, while ISIS cunningly uses social media to recruit members and confuse opponents.

But the greater threat comes from Russia. “Russia has the know-how and experience to execute a future disruptive attack on U.S. elections,” he said. Its “intent is to penetrate to the lowest level of the American voting systems.”

Russia also probes the country’s SCADA systems looking for weaknesses. SCADA systems are used to monitor and control plants or equipment in critical industries such as telecommunications, water and waste control, energy, oil and gas refining and transportation.

“They’ll go where we’re weak and plant beacons in the system to report back on its continuing vulnerability.” In military terms, “what we’re seeing is preparation of the battlespace.”

This all leaves America’s counties on the front lines with little hope of help from the federal government, he said. “There’s not yet a cyber cavalry system — no one’s coming over the hill to help you when your systems have been compromised.”

He left the Tech Town Hall audience with one last message:

 “Our democracy is under attack and you are the people who will defend it.”

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About Bev Schlotterbeck (Full Bio)

Consulting Editor, County News

As executive editor, Bev manages and directs the editorial and production process for County News, NACo's official bi-weekly membership newspaper. She also oversees the County News website and emailed newsletter, CN Alerts. She has spent many years in the communications field, working as a reporter, editor and public relations director.