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Former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden prepares to address attendees at the 2nd annual Cybersecurity Summit. Caitlin Byrd/Staff

Former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden walked into the Carolina Ballroom of the Francis Marion Hotel without any security detail — a mark of civilian life for a man who once led two of the country's most powerful intelligence agencies.

But then his cellphone lights up: It's a national news outlet asking him to speak on one of the Sunday shows.

Though he's a decade removed from his time in the federal government, Hayden is still a man in demand.

He flew to Charleston from McLean, Va., to headline a cybersecurity conference hosted by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and SC Cyber, a Columbia-based initiative to boost the state's cybersecurity efforts.

Minutes before more than 200 attendees settled into the ballroom Thursday, the retired four-star Air Force general told an organizer of his presentation, "Don't worry. No slides."

Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, said his group reached out to Hayden because cyber attacks are a shared fear among businesses small and large.

It's why Hayden, a self-described "policy guy," outlined for 45 minutes why the cyber domain remains a challenge today for the federal government.

"It's still so hard because the only way your armed forces can think about it is to actually treat it as a completely separate domain of conflict," Hayden said, explaining the digital space is just as dangerous as any attack by land, air, sea or space. 

He added, "That's how big a deal this is, how disruptive, how different."

Hayden told the crowd he has been saying this for years, in large part, because the challenges in the cyber domain remain structurally the same.

He also said the cyber space is still relatively young, the laws have not kept pace and the cultural attitudes surrounding the policing of the digital world differ from what's expected in the physical world.

It's a challenging combination.

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"If I get up in the middle of night in my home in Fairfax County, and I walk out and I see a Fairfax County police car going by with a little spotlight  on the shrubs in front of my house, my instinct — and I think yours is — 'I like that. That's my tax dollars at work,'" he said. "Now, you imagine whatever it is you think is the digital equivalent on your home network and there is no one in this room saying, 'Oh yeah that's a great idea.'"

Even after the suspected Russian attacks meant to interfere in the 2016 elections, Hayden said it's unclear at what point defense leaders would decide to respond to a cyber attack with military force.

Phil Hasty said he was impressed by Hayden's remarks. Hasty works as the IT manager for the City of Clinton and serves as president of the state's Municipal Technology Association. 

"We are alone out there," Hasty said of efforts to keep municipal data safe day in and day out. "The thing is that when these attacks can come at you with an individual phishing email, it starts to feel, well, personal."

But Hasty said he plans to keep reminding his staff to remember they are the first line of defense. It's why his email signature reads: "Stop, think, then click."

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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