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Nelson Visits UWF Cybersecurity Center

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson was in Pensacola recently to get a firsthand look at the University of West Florida’s Center for Cybersecurity.

Center Director Eman El-Sheikh provided a briefing on the facility, one of only six National Center Academic of Excellence (CAE) Regional Resource Centers in the country, serving the Southeast and Puerto Rico.

“We’re thrilled about what we’re doing to cybersecurity, and we certainly want to help advance the state of it overall as a national leader in cyber-education,” said El-Sheikh.

“What you’re doing, Doctor [El-Sheikh], is extremely important for our country, said Nelson after the briefing. “These are doing to be super-important jobs in the future, whether you’re in government or business. It makes no difference.”

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson listens to a briefing on the UWF Center for Cybersecurity.

After the briefing and chatting with UWF students and officials at the state-of-the-art Center, Nelson said one recent cyber-breach, believed to be from a Russian operative, hit close to home, in the form of an email that sought to solicit confidential information from him and two other senators.

“It was a picture of a woman and her daughter,” Nelson said. “And the message was, ‘Diane needs to talk to you.’ We had better sense; we did not click on it. We had the Senate’s security sweep it off.”

The same message was sent to Nelson’s daughter; she didn’t take the bait, either.

“Thank goodness, at this level of education, that the University of West Florida is not only doing this program, but has excelled,” said Nelson. “Fortunately, we have a number of these centers in universities in Florida; a total of 14.”

That’s more than any other state except for Maryland, which is home to the National Security Agency [NSA] and the U.S. Cyber Command. Nelson feels that, instead of tanks, rifles and boots on the ground, the next war will be waged in cyberspace.

In fact, he says it’s already underway.

“Everything we do is being touched by cyber, and the possibility of attack,” said Nelson. “Take for example the electronics; taking control of a car. Suppose that would occur to a commercial airliner? You start to see the implications of this. We’ve really got to be on our toes.”

To that end, Congress passed a major cybersecurity bill last year, but it’s strictly voluntary for businesses. The key, says Nelson, is once a cyber-attack comes, is to get ahead of it and get people warned.

“If a business that is attacked, if it’s voluntary for them to report to the Department of Homeland Security, it may be too late by the time they finally report,” said Nelson. “We need to tune up some of that legislation.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee, on which Nelson serves, has created a cyber subcommittee. Nelson is the ranking Democrat, and says the challenge is found on a number of levels.

“One of our top military officers; the word was put out that he was divorced, and he was already living with another woman,” Nelson said. “People were coming over to his house and asking his wife why was she still in the house. It’s not only malicious, it’s insidious.”

Roughly one in five Americans have been hit by some form of cyber-crime, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Such attacks also cost U.S. businesses about $15.5 million per year.