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MDNG Serves Real, Virtual Communities in COVID-19 Response

By Senior Airman Sarah M. McClanahan, Maryland National Guard Public Affairs Office

MIDDLE RIVER, Md. (April 04, 2020) — The Maryland National Guard is assisting in protecting virtual communities through the development of a joint task force composed of Guardsmen and their cyber partners in the Maryland Defense Force and the Maryland Department of Information Technology. 

The Maryland National Guard’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has involved a number of missions, including statewide efforts in assisting transportation support, medical supply and food distribution, and setting up potential health screening locations. However, the response efforts to protect the health of Maryland communities does not stop in the physical world and the cyber task force is the first of its kind to be stood up in response to COVID-19.

In response to the Governor’s call for a state of emergency, U.S. Air Force Col. Reid J. Novotny, MDNG Joint Staff J6, began coordinating with the Maryland Military Department and lead agencies doing cyber protection for the state to determine how they could assist the state’s operations. 

“The [Maryland Military Department], both in the Army, Air and Maryland Defense Force, have a great deal of cyber capabilities,” explained Novotny. “We stood up a joint task force for cyber under the air component and will be helping the [Maryland] Department of Information Technology in their mission to protect communication coming from the Governor and the state.”

The joint team will be tasked with evaluating Maryland government websites to ensure they are functioning properly and the information presented is accurate. These sites are providing critical information to the public to include avenues for applying for unemployment, how to donate resources, and timely updates on the state’s response.

“It’s an incredibly fluid situation,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Colin Ferguson, MDNG Joint Staff Deputy J6 for Cyber. “There’s a lot of data sources and information flowing around. We want to make sure the public is getting the most accurate information and that the governor doesn’t have to worry about nefarious activity [disrupting the flow of information to the public].”

The 175th Cyberspace Operations Group actively rotates through mobilizations and is consistently training. This allows the MDNG to be fully prepared to defensively support a mission like the COVID-19 response efforts.

“Our livelihood basically is to prepare for these types of events,” explains Air Force Lt. Col. Janice Hernandez, Maryland Joint Task Force Cyber commander. According to Hernandez, the group’s cyber protection team has had substantial experience in defending military computer networks. “We’ve trained for it and we can also use it in our state capacity.”

In many ways, this mission is “business as usual” for the cyber professionals of the MDNG. This is in part due to existing partnerships with Maryland’s other agencies involved in cyber protection. 

“They have already done preliminary work in support of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in the Maryland Joint Operation Center to reduce known vulnerabilities, especially those used by advanced persistent threat actors,” explains Novotny. “It’s easy to hit-the-ground-running because we already knew the people involved and had already set up the command structure between the different organizations in the military and at the state level.”

In a great example of neighbors stepping up to help their neighbors, the members of Joint Task Force Cyber will be able to work within Maryland State government systems and websites, having a direct impact on the members of their communities.

One of the things that makes it very meaningful is the real impact on the state and for the citizens,” explains Chip Stewart, Maryland Department of Information Technology State Chief Information Security Officer. “What we’re doing helps protect the state from bad guys that would seek to do harm in this crisis and I think that that impact is extraordinarily positive and unique.”

In a time of crisis, it is more important than ever to come together and collectively do our individual parts in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Each role may look different, but each and every instance of neighbors helping neighbors makes an impact.

“Outside of our Guard family, we’re members of the community,” said Ferguson. “I’ve had multiple Maryland residents reach out to me to ask if I was getting pulled into the guard efforts to ask what we’re doing. I think it’s really important for citizens to be able to have a level of one-on-one connection with a Guard member to understand this is a supportive and enabling effort. That’s the real intent and they’re hearing it directly from the people that are their friends and neighbors.”