Brig. Gen. Brad Owens, Aiken First Friday

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Brad Owens speaks Friday at the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce's monthly "First Friday" breakfast forum.

Aiken could soon become a cybersecurity pioneer for South Carolina and serve as a springboard into broader cyber-defense fields and missions, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Brad Owens said Friday morning at Newberry Hall.

The construction and eventual operation of the DreamPort Cybersecurity Collaborative at USC Aiken – a partnership between the local university, the Savannah River National Laboratory and the S.C. National Guard – will help tie things together, he said. Separately, it will lure business to the county.

"We know about the world-class cyber enterprise throughout South Carolina, we just hadn't been able to connect all the dots," said Owens, the S.C. National Guard director of joint staff, speaking at the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce's First Friday breakfast. "And so I want Aiken to be the portal. I want Aiken to be the gateway into that cyber enterprise."

The DreamPort hub will comprise state-of-the-art facilities – offering both open and secure settings – and engender opportunities for education, research and workforce development, officials have said.

The multimillion-dollar center is also meant to address growing cybersecurity threats.

"They're hitting our school systems, they're hitting our county and city government, and so on and so forth," Owens said. He continued: "They are here to deceive us in deceptive operations and weaponize social media. They're here to disrupt your freedom of access across the internet, and to deny you that data that just continues to grow."

Governments and businesses across the country have been bombarded with waves of ransomware, malicious software meant to block off data or systems until a ransom is paid. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security cyber and infrastructure security division has described ransomware as "the most visible cybersecurity risk playing out across" the nation's networks.

"The threats are real," the brigadier general said. "The threats are real."

Ransomware attacks impacted more than 900 government agencies, educational institutions and health care providers in 2019, according to Emsisoft, a security firm cited in The New York Times and Axios.

"Without going into a lot, and certainly not going into classified, cyber is a significant threat to this state, to this nation, and it is a growing challenge to us each and every day, not only from a military perspective," Army Maj. Gen. Van McCarty said earlier this year. McCarty is the Palmetto State's adjutant general.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster proposed $15 million for the DreamPort Cybersecurity Collaborative in his executive budget. A spokesperson for the governor, Brian Symmes, previously told the Aiken Standard that "the DreamPort cyber center is clearly something that the governor feels very strongly about."

Brig. Gen. Brad Owens, South Carolina Slide

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Brad Owens discussed the DreamPort Cybersecurity Collaborative Friday morning with the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce.

The prospective placement of the DreamPort complex is no coincidence, Owens suggested Friday.

"When we started looking at Aiken County and this congressional district, we knew about what was happening at Fort Gordon, and we knew, you know, the visionary leadership at the Savannah River Site, the 198,000 acres that are available at the Savannah River Site," Owens, a North Augusta native, said. "We knew about world-class talent at the national laboratory."

Others have described it, succinctly, as the "power of proximity." Fort Gordon in Augusta is the Army's cyber center of excellence.

Construction of the DreamPort Cybersecurity Collaborative, according to Owens and an earlier-announced project timeline, could start in a few years.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin