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Lieutenant General Kennedy Highlights the Strategic, Defensive Roles of Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is a constantly developing field that requires skills relevant in both military and civilian life, according to U.S. Lieutenant General Kevin B. Kennedy, commander of the Sixteenth Air Force.

“What we’re trying to teach in the cyber domain is critical thinking, how you consume information,” Kennedy said. “If you haven’t necessarily had the training and the understanding that you’re being manipulated, anything from marketing to any rhetorical argument, you’re being manipulated in some way.”

Kennedy spoke at Boston College Law School on Monday evening about his role in managing the Air Force’s cybersecurity. Kennedy broke down the three key influences in military cybersecurity operations: strategy, authority, and policy. 

“If you do not persistently engage in trying to disrupt the adversary or deny the adversary access to your data, access to your networks, and access to your information, they will gain strategic advantage in competition that they will leverage for crisis and conflict,” Kennedy said.

To maintain authority, Kennedy said he outlines the specific lines of communication between ranked military officials when discussing sensitive information to ensure minimal data leakage. 

“How that’s executed is classified, but in general the authorities are executed—the President establishes the overall objectives that are delegated down to the Secretary of Defense and then at some level, you delegate the authorities for execution,” Kennedy said.

Policy changes usually occur by elections, according to Kennedy, either by different personalities in a position or political appointees.

“And that is not a flaw, that’s a feature,” Kennedy said. “It says we’re going forwards and that we just have to adapt the other strategy and authorities.” 

Kennedy also said the Air Force works with other countries, sharing information with its allies to prevent the spread of disinformation. 

“Any partner and allies relationship usually starts with information sharing, doesn’t matter the domain on what you’re talking about there,” Kennedy said.

According to Kennedy, people currently view cybersecurity as something they just have to comply with, but in a war environment, it can be the element that decides the victor.

“As we move forwards in future warfare, [cybersecurity] will have synergistic effects in any kind of full scale multi-domain conflict,” Kennedy said. “The victorious side will be the side who is more resilient and able to absorb and recover and get the information that they need to execute their mission.”

In the private sector, the Air Force’s main goal is to stop the spread of disinformation while protecting American citizens’ First Amendment rights, Kennedy said. This is especially crucial because of extremist terrorist groups, which he said use social media to spread destructive misinformation to the American public.

“If we get awareness that these are fake accounts or things, we can do terms of service violations and do that. So that’s what the social media companies with all the cybersecurity providers do to collaborate,” Kennedy said.

Today, the potential power of AI is a widely debated issue. Kennedy said it is very prevalent in military operations. 

“I think I don’t have a choice for cybersecurity,” Kennedy said. “We’re talking minutes if not seconds to respond to prevent some sort of data loss … and if I don’t have AI or ML tools to catch that, it’s really hard for analysts to do that.”

Wrapping up his lecture, Kennedy revealed the aspect of cybersecurity that keeps him up at night: the spread of misinformation.

“Getting our arms around disinformation and misinformation in the country [is crucial],” he said.

He went on to express the danger of anonymous users on social media. This unrestricted spread of propaganda can be extremely harmful and can generate false public perceptions on a host of issues, he said. 

“If you’re getting an emotional response from something, that’s not the right place to start,” he said. “Right? And every time you open TikTok, or Twitter, or even Instagram, it’s almost generally an emotional response.” 

October 29, 2023