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Published: Sunday, 5/19/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

In battle against cyberattacks, these hackers wear the ‘white hats’

SEATTLE TIMES
Adam Cecchetti, 31, one of the founders of Deja vu Security, which operates out of a loft on Capitol Hill, says that unlike hackers who are a menace to others, "I'm not in this business to harm people, or to take grandma's savings or deface someone's website." Adam Cecchetti, 31, one of the founders of Deja vu Security, which operates out of a loft on Capitol Hill, says that unlike hackers who are a menace to others, "I'm not in this business to harm people, or to take grandma's savings or deface someone's website."
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SEATTLE — He’s 26, likes industrial and electronic music, has a bleached-blond Mohawk haircut, and sometimes, Mikhail Davidov said, he starts his day “at the crack of noon.”

The late hours are in front of a computer, working on reverse engineering, tearing apart computer programs to find their vulnerabilities.

Sometimes he works 18 hours straight. “There are few hackers out there who are ‘morning people,’ ” Mr. Davidov said.

These days, the front lines for security don’t only include soldiers carrying weapons.

They include computer whiz kids like Mr. Davidov, who works for the Leviathan Security Group, a 20-person firm that operates out of second-floor offices in a renovated 1918 building in Seattle.

Chad Thunberg, chief operating officer of Leviathan, said he can relate to Mr. Davidov, remembering his own younger days.

Mr. Thunberg, who is 35 and married with two children, said, “I’m considered a grandpa in my industry. There was a time when I was the Mikhail equivalent. You live and breathe security.”

Cyberattacks are costing corporations — and consumers — a lot. In a six-year span starting in 2005, data breaches in 33 countries, including the United States, cost the firms involved more than $156 billion, according to the nonprofit Digital Forensics Association.

Every second, in various parts of the world, there are 18 cybercrime victims — some 1.6 million a day — according to a 2012 Norton by Symantec study.

The Wenatchee World newspaper reported recently that a Leavenworth, Wash., hospital said hackers stole more than $1 million from the hospital’s electronic bank account. The Chelan County, Wash., treasurer said it had been able to retrieve about $133,000 by notifying recipient bank accounts, most in the Midwest and East Coast.

And LivingSocial, an online deals site, recently said that its Web site was hacked and the personal data of more than 50 million customers may have been affected — names, email addresses, date of birth of some users, and encrypted passwords.

Then there are the Chinese hackers, who blasted into the news in February when Mandiant, an Internet security firm, released a report saying that a group linked to the People’s Liberation Army had systemically stolen confidential data from at least 141 American firms.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama warned, “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems.”

That makes Internet security a booming industry, at an estimated nearly $1 billion a year in 2012, according to the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Another “white hat” hacker is Adam Cecchetti, 31, who used to work at Leviathan and then in 2010 became one of the founders of Deja vu Security, which operates out of a second-floor renovated loft in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Sometimes, he has colored his hair blue.

Mr. Davidov and Mr. Cecchetti are on the front lines of fighting off the “black hat” hackers. Yes, that is how they describe their enemy.

The black hats include those sending out phishing emails that look like they came from a legitimate source but are fakes trying to get your passwords and credit-card information.

Or maybe they are trying to compromise a company’s Web site just so they can boast about it in hacker circles.

For the white hats, their unique skill at finding where a program is vulnerable and how to close the digital doors used by black hats to penetrate a Web site is worth $120,000 to $130,000 a year, Mr. Thunberg said.

“Companies are being attacked by bad people, and if they want to defend themselves, they have to attract these scarce people,” he said. “There are maybe 1,000 individuals of this nature in the world. They have this unique hacker mind-set.”

Their clients aren’t exactly keen to publicize that they seek Internet security, said Mr. Thunberg, and that’s often written into their contracts with Leviathan. Mr. Thunberg said his company’s average contract size is about $70,000. Citing privacy, he said only that most are Fortune 1000 companies.

But one client that didn’t mind talking is a Washington, D.C.-based company called Silent Circle. For $20 a month, it offers a service that encrypts voice, text, and video on a user’s smartphone, tablet, or computer.

Their customers include U.S. businesses “doing work in China and Eastern Europe and other places where they don’t want their phone calls tapped,” said Jon Callas, Silent Circle's chief technical officer.

His company, Mr. Callas said, hired Leviathan to evaluate the encrypting software for vulnerabilities and fix them.

“They helped us find problems before anybody else did,” Mr. Callas said.

At Deja vu Security, Mr. Cecchetti said, work that they’ve done includes posing as new employees at a financial institution, given the standard access to computers. Firms routinely give computer “administrative privileges” to only a handful of individuals.

But, Mr. Cecchetti said, “within a couple of weeks, we had basically control of the entire organization and could access pretty much anything we wanted.”

Deja vu put together “a very large report” on how to fix things, he said.

Hackers such as Mr. Davidov and Mr. Cecchetti have certain similarities. For one thing, they started tinkering with computers when they were kids, and that passion never stopped.

Mr. Cecchetti grew up in Greensburg, Pa. He helped start a computer club in high school and said that although he ran track and played soccer, “I was plenty nerdy.”

As a teen in the 1990s, he was programming video games and went on to creating simple Web sites -- before Web sites became ubiquitous.

Mr. Cecchetti earned a master’s from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University in electrical and computer engineering, and ended up in Seattle in 2005, working for Amazon to keep black hats from breaking in.

Mr. Davidov is the son of Russian immigrants. His father worked at a tech firm in Moscow and got a visa to come to the United States in 1995, moving the family to Woodinville, Wash.

But even in the old country, when he was 5, Davidov said, he was using a computer his father brought home, “playing little DOS games,” the early operating system.

By his teen years, Davidov was hacking into video games so he could beat them.

Having promised his parents that he’d go to college, Mr. Davidov enrolled at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., and earned a four-year degree in “Real-Time Interactive Simulation.”

“That means I know video games,” Mr. Davidov said.

It is the ability to look at programs over, under, sideways, and down that makes a person like Mr. Davidov so valuable, and in such short supply.

But even with more college classes in cybersecurity, it is real-world experience that is needed, said Mr. Davidov. Outside of a school’s lab, he said, it all gets “much grander in scope.”

There are also personal aspects, he said, such as when he delivers a report to developers who had spent a long time working on a program, and he points out its security flaws.

The developers, he said, “can get a little defensive, and it can become a little confrontational.”

For both Mr. Davidov and Mr. Cecchetti, it was a conscious, and simple, decision to become a white hat.

Said Mr. Cecchetti, “I’m not in this business to harm people, or to take Grandma’s savings, or deface somebody’s Web site.”

There is plenty of money to be made in Internet security.

“Things are very good,” Mr. Cecchetti said about Deja vu, which has a staff of a dozen.

Companies pay for security because getting hacked can cost plenty.

Mr. Cecchetti now is one of those who hires, and said that when interviewing applicants, he wants to know, “Can they see things from the perspective of a hacker, gleeful to see how things are made? They need to want to peel away the layers. What happens if I make a very small change in the system?”

If you can do that, you can come to the office in any hairstyle you want.



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