Washington - Countries up and down the Western Hemisphere are looking to eliminate weaknesses in their cyber infrastructure that could give potential adversaries, including China and Russia, the ability to do extensive damage by exploiting a single vulnerability.
The United States and 20 partner countries from across the Americas will meet at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington Wednesday and Thursday for what U.S. officials are calling a first-of-its-kind summit designed to strengthen their individual and collective cyber defenses.
'We need to partner with one another to strengthen the cybersecurity of the region, as well as the individual countries,' U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Tuesday, adding that many countries are still in the 'formative stages' when it comes to developing and deploying cyber defenses.
Already, at least a handful of Latin American countries have been victimized by cyberattacks.
Just last month, Ecuadorian officials said cyberattacks targeted voting systems used by Ecuadorians while voting overseas in China, India and Bangladesh. And in 2022, Costa Rica was beset by a series of cyberattacks attributed to the Russian-based Conti ransomware gang, which resulted in a state of emergency.
FILE - Costa Rica's former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves speaks to supporters at his headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica, after winning a presidential runoff election, Apr. 3, 2022.
'We were attacked, affecting the backbone of the functioning of the state,' Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves Robles told an audience in Washington last month.
'Our tax system, our customs system, electricity, even meteorological services. ... Our health system was attacked,' he said. 'It was ugly.'
Already, the U.S. has pledged $25 million to Costa Rica to help the country create an operation center to better detect and mitigate attacks. But officials, like Mayorkas, warn that more dangers are lurking.
'We are seeing an only increasing exploitation of infrastructure,' the Homeland Security secretary said, pointing specifically to China.
'What we are seeing is an assertive PRC [People's Republic of China] seeking to gain an increasing foothold in certain Latin American countries' infrastructure,' Mayorkas said, in response to a question from VOA.
'That creates a greater level of vulnerability rather than a source of cybersecurity strength,' he added. 'For countries that pride themselves on their democracy, on their independence, on their sovereignty, they have to maintain the independence and freedom of their [cyber] infrastructure.'
Chinese officials have repeatedly dismissed such concerns, saying claims in August by the commander of U.S. Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, were nothing more than 'lies and rumors ... and slander.'
But Richardson warned that China's efforts to build critical infrastructure across Latin America, including high-speed, 5G mobile phone networks, has put China in Washington's 'red zone' as a potential threat.
In addition to the U.S., Ecuador, Costa Rica and the OAS, officials from Peru, the Dominican Republic, Canada, the Bahamas, Panama, El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico are expected to participate in the summit.
U.S. officials say one of the topics that will be up for discussion during the two-day summit is the possible creation of a regional cybersecurity hub to facilitate best practices and share threat warnings.
Panels are also expected to focus on protecting critical cyber systems, and the transportation and banking sectors.
Other panels will focus on building the capacity of law enforcement agencies to go after cyber criminals.
And U.S. officials said they also expect some discussion of Chinese and Russian influence campaigns that sometimes accompany cyberattacks by actors linked to both nations.