This is the second of three stories on how information technology and innovation are transforming industries and people’s lives. The topics were discussed during a roundtable reception with the leaders of IBM, Panasonic and the Washington Corp. at the University of Montana.

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

If hackers successfully stole credit card data from Target, breached the Internal Revenue Service and hacked the Democratic National Committee, then chances are good the attacks will increase as the world becomes more connected and dependent on technology.

Alex Philp, a Mansfield senior research fellow at the University of Montana, posed the question of cybersecurity to three technology experts in a roundtable discussion this week. All three agreed that the threats are real, though one suggested the risks are often created by sloppy business practices.

“The hackers are just smart IT people that know how lazy you are,” said Nick Donofrio, former executive vice president of innovation and technology at IBM. “They're going to be exhaustive and stay there, pounding away at you over and over again until they find that one moment in time where you made a mistake.”

According to industry experts, 169 million personal records were exposed in 2015 resulting from 781 publicized breaches across a number of sectors, including financial, health care and government. That marked a 38 percent increase over 2014.

Cybersecurity Ventures also suggests that damage from cybercrime will hit $6 trillion annually by 2021. In 2013, UM opened its Cyber Innovation Lab to train students on tracking and defending cyber technology.

“Technology is enabling all this to happen, and we created the technology,” said Donofrio. “We're the people that are making these problems. If there was no IT, there would be no cybersecurity problem, period. It's exacerbated by writing lousy applications and having bad practices.”

The increase in cyber attacks has pushed security spending on products and services to more than $80 billion in 2016. Spending on security is likely to surpass $1 trillion by 2021.

The figures, profits and sales associated with cybersecurity isn't lost on Chris Warden, vice president of technology at the Washington Corp.

“I do think that as things become more and more important, we rise to the occasion to make them more secure,” said Warden. “But I also think a lot of people in the technology sector, particularly analysis and sales people, like to use those things to scare you, and you should be scared, but it's a little irrational.”

Even so, Warden said cyber attacks are one of the biggest threats facing his company, which includes Montana Rail Link. The railroad uses sensor technology and streaming data to run its trains more efficiently.

The railroad serves more than 100 stations in Montana, Idaho and Washington, and is responsible for shipping many goods out of state to distant markets.

“The thought that someone would use technology to harm someone, especially as sensors are more embedded into our operations – it's more and more possible,” said Warden. “Soon we'll have them embedded into our cars and public transportation, all sorts of things where the risks and stakes are higher.”

The New York Times has reported that Russian hackers roamed freely through the Democratic National Committee’s network for almost seven months before the committee was aware of it.

Masato Nakamura, the director of international corporate affairs with Panasonic, said his company is taking steps to keep hackers from infiltrating its line of products, most of which are increasingly connected to the network.

“Panasonic is concerned,” said Nakamura. “This is a day-by-day issue. Our company is working to make policies – what kind of encryptions we should build and share with all our customers and clients.”

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