A key figure in American business has urged all companies to take the cyber security threat more seriously after chastising his own accountant for paying a ransomware demand.

Jorge Fernandez, VP global commerce for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said it is time that firms took the same care in cyberspace as they do when installing physical security.

“People take care over physical security but don’t think in terms of cyber,” he told BusinessCloud.

“If you are a cyber security technology innovator, you’re okay: you’re part of the ecosystem. The issue is how to tell the story to enterprise to ensure it makes cyber security an integral part of the business model.

“It’s an education process at enterprise level… it’s an uphill battle.”

The NHS was among a multitude of global organisations targeted by a large-scale ransomware attack called WannaCry, which experts believe originated in North Korea.

Such an attack occurs when someone is tricked into downloading malware which encrypts files on their computer or network and a ransom demand is made for their release.

“The only cyber attacks you know about are the ones that hit the news. The truth is there are many more, but you don’t hear about the small ones,” he continued.

“My accountant got hacked and he paid the ransom in Bitcoins. I asked him: ‘Why did you do that?’ It’s unbelievable.

“A personal friend of mine owns several car dealerships and I asked him about cyber security. He said: ‘I sell cars – why do I need to worry about that?’

“I said: ‘You’ve got a whole network – I just hope you don’t get hacked’. Then a lightbulb went on… but they just don’t think that way.”

On WannaCry, the former US Air Force command pilot and international affairs advisor added: “Outside the military, the approach to combating an attack like that is very fragmented – both in the US and the UK. The military has more of a methodological and strategic approach.

“Each company takes its own decisions for security, brings its own innovation, its own policies.

“We must raise the profile of cyber as people are not paying attention. They make a big furore about it when it is in the news then a week later it’s forgotten.

“Many think that it is an issue for the technology companies that are doing cyber security and not an issue they have to deal with directly. It’s a bunch of bull****.”

The Metro Atlanta Chamber is a private body and is planning Atlanta Cyber Week, in conjunction with law firm Baker Donelson, for October 2-6. The key aim is to promote enterprise awareness of the cyber threat.

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Atlanta

The Atlanta city region employs around 200,000 people in cyber security, according to Fernandez.

“We have a critical mass in cyber on the enterprise side: 25 per cent of the global turnover in the cyber security sector is touched by companies in Atlanta,” he said.

“Through Atlanta Cyber Week we are seeking to connect cyber security companies and businesses, including our many Fortune 1000 companies. We’ve held Cybercon for the last three years but this year is the first attempt to gel the wider ecosystem together.”

Cuba-born Fernandez seeks to build commercial opportunities for Atlanta in the global marketplace and joined the chamber from Delta Air Lines – where he was responsible for all international operations and sales activities outside the US – in 2006.

His current role has seen him frequently send delegations to Manchester as well as London for the past five or six years. Indeed, he was in both cities as recently as last week, when BusinessCloud caught up with him.

“We pick areas around the world where there is critical mass: in Manchester we are working with the creative media in areas such as VR,” he said. “We spent a lot of time in MediaCity with the BBC and companies there.

“In London, we’re working with our partner Midas in FinTech. In India we work with Accenture in IoT and in Toronto we are involved in the film industry.”

While he was in the UK, Fernandez also ventured further north to visit an augmented reality company that is giving users the power to project digital signs in the sky which are viewable through mobile devices.

Skignz, based in Stockton-on-Tees, could help friends find each other at a festival, for example, while giving brands the power to reach customers with relevant information in truly technological fashion.

“We took the train up to the North East to visit Skignz. They’ve been selected for Coca-Cola’s Bridge programme in Atlanta and are in the process of establishing themselves there,” said Fernandez.

“Coca-Cola opened the first Bridge programme in Tel Aviv with a cohort of start-ups to solve their innovation issues. They were so successful they opened one in Atlanta alongside the Weather Channel, SunTrust Bank, Delta Air Lines and others.

“Skignz is doing great: it applies AR to education and company training [to name just two areas].

“We’re putting them on a panel [at Atlanta Cyber Week] to talk about cyber security in the VR and AR world.”

Atlanta is known as ‘Transaction Alley’ as FinTech firms in the Georgia city handle 70 per cent of all digital payments in the US. To put that into perspective, the payment processing industry is worth a similar amount to worldwide sales in the US movie industry.

With this in mind, Fernandez has plans to further expand the annual event next year.

“We want to bring together Venture Atlanta with cyber and the Bridge programme’s disruptive start-up technology,” he said.

“Coca-Cola is very interested in creating an event similar to South By South West, with music and culture, but dedicated to particular industries such as cyber and FinTech.”