Texas guard forms cyber strike teams

Heavy armor like what's on display at Camp Mabry is still used to fight wars, but the modern-day battlefield now includes the digital world.

"Cyber is the new frontier, and just like every new innovation, with all of the good, there are people who try to use that new innovation for destruction or to gain financially, nations, states, and criminals,” said Lt Col. Chris Winnek. 

Lt Col. Winnek organized a conference at Camp Mabry on cyber-attacks. Those attending not only learned how to avoid becoming a victim, but also who to call.

The Texas Military Department has created digital strike teams about 130 strong with another thousand, including some civilian experts, available for a call, that can be deployed to local communities. The deployment model is similar to how the state responds to hurricanes.

"So as counties or municipalities request support through the division of emergency management, the TMD partners with those state agencies and puts boots on the ground to help those individuals in time of need,” said Winnek. 

Jackson County Judge Jill Sklar, who spoke at the conference, made such a call.

"What I went through was hell. But these guys and ladies helped me through it,” said Sklar.

She was the first in Texas to declare a cyber disaster this past spring because of a ransomware attack 

"It was in BitCoin, it was around $360,000 way more than a small county like Jackson County could afford,” said Sklar. 

Jackson County was essentially shut down.

"I could tell immediately our IT providers were not capable of responding to this incident,” said Sklar.

The state cyber response team got the county back online.

"So they did about six months of work, I believe in 15 days, which is unbelievable,” said Sklar.

The team worked a larger attack in August involving 23 local agencies and departments. In September the Travis County Central Appraisal District was also hit with a ransomware demand. Getting computer systems back online can take time. Filling that gap is where mobile command trailers come into play.

"This can definitely be a temporary patch for any communications necessary for county, city, state however we need to deploy it,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Schlieve.

It’s possible the trailers could be used as 911 call centers as well as workspace for county clerks.

"The capacity, the flexibility. we have an internet service that are not terrestrial-based, they run off satellite, the possibility of us getting attacked at the same time is very slim,” said Schlieve.

Mission decals currently on the trailers are for natural disasters and border security. But with more digital attacks expected, decals for cyber storm response will be added.

Basic advice on how to defend against a cyber-attack starts with understanding that everyone is a target.

Experts also recommend:

  • always back up your data. 
  • 8 characters for a password are not enough
  • The word “password” is never an option. 
  • Always think before clicking on any attachment. If it looks suspicious it probably is.