CISA Director Jen Easterly Finds Resilience in DSU Community

An unmistakable passion for cyber security percolates in Dr. Jen Easterly, and her excitement is contagious when she shares about contributing to the nation’s cyber safety. “We can’t fear technology, right? At the end of the day we have to leverage its power for good,”  she told the Trojan Times after her keynote address at DSU’s 11th DakotaCon. Dr. Easterly has been the director of the United States Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) since 2021, following a notable career including 20+ years of intelligence and cyber operations leadership in the U.S. Army. 

Jen Easterly is the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)

During her remarks for DakotaCon, Dr. Easterly shared that she met DSU’s President Griffiths at a White House event, and that encounter made her anticipate a visit to Dakota State University. “There’s some incredible talent at Dakota State and I’m excited about that,” she told the Trojan Times, noting how important the human spirit of resilience is in making sure the country is cyber resilient. “I sense the power of [the spirit of resilience] right here in Madison…the right attitude that’s powered by the resilience that’s in your DNA just simply by being in this state.” Easterly observed that the durable nature of South Dakotans naturally cultivates their ability to plan for, prepare for, and recover from cyber attacks. 

Dr. Easterly discovered her own passion for cyber security when she was deployed to Iraq in 2006. In helping troops on the ground to secure themselves from threats, including cyber threats, she came to the realization that cyber security is not something that only concerns coders or programmers. Instead, it affects every system our country uses, from something as large as a national bank to something as small as a tractor. As “the underpinnings of everything we rely upon from technology…It all needs to be safe and secure,” Easterly stated. She anticipates the growth of cyber security jobs in South Dakota as the public continues to grasp the importance of technological safety in everything we do. 

One way that CISA helps make the public aware of cyber security risks and protections is by educating American children. In May, the agency plans to release a musical cartoon patterned after the beloved Schoolhouse Rock! of the 1970s. This catchy jingle will be a creative way to capture students’ attention and remind them of the four basic ways every citizen can stay secure. Dr. Easterly sang a preview of the song for the Times, reminding us to “install your updates, make better passwords, think before you click, and use multiple factors.” CISA also has a website equipped with videos, tip sheets, and numerous other resources to educate anyone willing to learn. 

Since the current future of technology includes increased use of generative AI, CISA is directing their attention towards protections that will allow Americans to use AI without risk. “I wouldn’t shy away from [generative AI], but I do think it’s really important that the creators of the technology are making sure that as it’s being built there are the right guardrails to prevent it being used for nefarious purposes,” Easterly shared, adding in light of the current debate on the pros and cons of AI, “Nothing is more important to your generation, to the next generation, than your good judgment and critical thinking skills.” There is no technology that can replace the human ability to critically evaluate technology’s potential for good or harm. 

“Nothing is more important to your generation, to the next generation, than your good judgment and critical thinking skills.”

Although CISA is based in Washington, D.C., the agency has regional operations across six states, including South Dakota. The Trojan Times also had the chance to speak with Shawn Graff, the Rocky Mountain regional director, at DakotaCon. Graff highlighted the value of local employees in making CISA’s midwest departments successful: “They come in with that trust, that knowledge of what the community needs, that understanding of the infrastructure specific to South Dakota…and then they can tap into that subject matter expertise.” Critical infrastructure needs cyber security protection in every part of the country, and Dr. Easterly and Mr. Graff are confident that DSU graduates will continue to find opportunities to pursue the field of cyber security in South Dakota and beyond.