The U.S.Homeland Security Department this week will convene the first-of-its-kind cybersecurity summit with leaders from Latin America, which has increasingly become a hotbed for criminal digital activity and influence efforts by China.
The two-day “Western Hemisphere Cyber Conference,” which will be attended by nearly two dozen nations and kicks off Wednesday, was inspired by a visit Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made to Ecuador late last year where he saw firsthand that the country is “at a very formative stage in developing its cybersecurity protocols.”
“I met with the leader of its cybersecurity agency, a very nascent agency, and realized upon my return that what Ecuador was experiencing in addressing its need to accelerate its cybersecurity efforts was something that was common to other Latin American countries,” Mayorkas said Tuesday during a virtual webinar with reporters.
The meeting comes after major cyberattacks have struck the region, most notably in Costa Rica, where ransomware attacks by the notorious digital criminal gang Conti crippled the country’s medical, government and commercial systems.
The onslaught prompted the U.S. to announce it would provide $25 million to bolster Costa Rica’s cyberdefenses against threats from ransomware and other hacks. Last month, Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, discussed how the nation could host a future cybersecurity hub for the region.
“I do anticipate that being a subject of discussion,” according to Mayorkas. “We are exploring the opportunity of a hub and we are going to be discussing different models to achieve digital cybersecurity. I think that underscores the need for it and the fact of this conference as a working conference.”
Meanwhile, China has worked to expand its presence in the region, particularly in Ecuador, where the government has deepened its ties with Beijing in a variety of ways.
“We are seeing an only increasing exploitation of infrastructure by adverse nation states and to cite a very prominent example, the People’s Republic of China and its digital Silk Road initiative is something that we have to ensure does not create vulnerability in or partners and in our interconnectivity, and I will be speaking of that at the conference,” according to Mayorkas.
Beijing’s attempts to gain a foothold “creates a greater level of vulnerability rather than a source of cybersecurity strength,” he told reporters, adding he would stress that countries participating in the conference must “maintain the independence and freedom of their infrastructure.”
Topics to be discussed at the event cover the gamut of protecting critical infrastructure, ransomware and the U.S. national cyber strategy, according to an agenda provided by DHS.
Neueberger and Acting National Cyber Director Kemba Walden are both slated to give keynote remarks at the conference. In addition, officials from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the FBI and the Justice Department will also participate in the event, held at the Organization of American States in Washington, DC.
“We put together a comprehensive program and our team has also proactively identified dozens of follow-on activities and engagements ranging from cybersecurity assessments, vulnerability assessment, trainings and other capacity building efforts to have a long lasting relationship,” said Iranga Kahangama, DHS assistant secretary for cyber, infrastructure, risk and resilience.
“This is not just a one off conference. It’s the start of a long lasting relationship with the region on cyber.”
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Martin Matishak is a senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He spent the last five years at Politico, where he covered Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community and was a driving force behind the publication’s cybersecurity newsletter.