New cyber unit director lays out plans as lawmakers craft its initial budget

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 7:14 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - From ransomware attacks hitting at least four school districts over the last few years to an election day hack of the Secretary of State’s website, Mississippi has already shown some of its weaknesses to hackers.

The director of the state’s new cyber unit, Bobby Freeman, said he plans to change that.

“We want to get in with those, you know, sheriff’s offices, the cities, the rural areas, and help them because honestly, a vulnerability in their systems could lead to a vulnerability that affects the state as a whole,” Freeman said.

The unit, which ultimately falls under the Department of Public Safety, represents the fourth state agency to tackle cybersecurity efforts.

The state’s IT department handles network safety.

The attorney general’s office has an entire division devoted to cybercrime - including sex trafficking and fraud.

Even the state auditor’s office helps agencies protect themselves from hackers.

“Ultimately, if we get ransomed, or if any public entity gets ransom, they’re going to be paying that ransom with taxpayer dollars. So that’s, that’s why it involves us,” State Auditor Shad White said. “It’s going to be helpful, I think, to have to have clearly defined roles that are going to move Mississippi cybersecurity posture forward, and for people to be executing on those roles.”

Freeman said the strategic plan for the state’s first cyber unit won’t overlap with those other agencies.

“The things that are currently in place in the state are a bit more targeted to specific entities, like you said, fraud, trafficking, things like that. We are focused on cybersecurity for the state as a whole and pushing out, pushing out good cyber threat intel to those agencies, this critical infrastructure.”

A 2019 report from the auditor’s office showed at least one-fifth of the state’s agencies had sensitive information that wasn’t even encrypted to help protect it from hackers.

Freeman said he’ll initially hire four people for the newly-formed unit and use them for two main purposes: quick response/training efforts and an operations center.

At this point, the unit’s so new, it doesn’t even have a budget yet.

Lawmakers will hammer that out during this year’s legislative session.

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