Photo: Ralph Echemendia. Photographer: Andres Hernandez
World-renowned cyber security expert Ralph Echemendia, known as “The Ethical Hacker,” has made his name over the past two decades working for clients that run the gamut from the United States government to Hollywood. Digital security adviser to Oliver Stone, Echemendia was also technical supervisor on Snowden, Stone’s biopic thriller based on the life one of the most famous whistleblowers of our time.
Echemendia, who was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami, first got involved with computers as a teen after getting a Commodore 64. He remembers the days of dial-up modems, before the advent of search engines, when his best resources were one or two friends who could pass along their knowledge. When he discovered The Hacker Manifesto, a short essay written in 1986 that created an ethical foundation for the use of technology, a lightbulb went off.
“It had a massive impact. Before that, I didn’t now what to call myself, what community I was a part of—all those things you as yourself as a young teenager. Where do I belong? Who am I? Why am I here? It helped me to design who I was and lead me in a direction,” Echemendia explains.
While it helped him establish his identity, it would be a few years before Echemendia learned he could make a living doing what he loved. After getting married at 19 he decided it was time to “grow up” and look for a ‘regular job.” He took a position as a secretary at a local tech company because he could type fast and use computer programs. He began talking with engineers and they soon discovered his wealth of knowledge—and it was then that Echemendia learned you didn’t need a degree to work on the tech side of the operation.
In those early years, security did not yet exist. It evolved as a response to hackers that began using the Internet for personal gain or creating chaos. Though initial strides have been made, Echemendia observes, “We are a baby in terms of time and babies are vulnerable. Most exerts in the field are just teenagers. There are no adults.”
Which may explain a certain level of naïveté evidenced in the level of trust we have put into technology. From tax records, banking, and healthcare data to email, iCloud and social media accounts, a tremendous amount of our personal data and identities exists online, sitting in sites that may have already been hacked to no one’s knowledge at this time. Cyber security is a matter of protecting what is private in our lives, the very pieces of information short of fingerprints and dental records that make us legally identifiable.
Speaking with Echemendia is like recognizing the plots of Black Mirror are not far-fetched; they simply exists as unethical possibilities to the use of hacking. Ultimately, the creation of cyberspace has opened an entirely new frontier where crime takes on a new shape in our lives. Identity theft can have financial and social implications; people can get doxxed, with their private information made public; divorces, job firings, death threats, reputations and livelihoods destroyed—there are countless risks that come from engaging openly or anonymously on the Internet.
“Most people don’t understand—why would they? When they do it is because something happened. There is the potential to do more but human nature is reactive; we don’t understanding something until it happens to us and by then it’s too little, too late. It’s the same as in the physical world. How are you going to protect yourself? You could take a karate class but the majority don’t. In the big picture, on a geopolitical level, we have an army and military to protect us. We don’t have tanks; we leave that to the government and to companies. People assume Google is doing what they should be doing to protect us; we don’t take responsibility for our use of technology and we give our information away,” he explains.
Indeed, Echemendia makes a strong case in creating a parallel between the physical and cyber worlds. In the physical world, the government cannot stop crime from occurring so we all do our best to make ourselves less vulnerable and avoid looking like an easy mark. But at the same time, disasters will happen—both natural and manmade, and while we have the technology to prepare for hurricanes, earthquakes are completely outside our control. No one knows where or when they will hit, or how long they will last.
Of preventing cybercrime, Echemendia observes, “There is a misconception that we can stop something from happening. We can’t stop it. We live in a world of earthquakes. There is no shortage of them.”
The best that we can do, then, is to become more conscious of the issues at hand and the consequences we face for living in a world that is going increasingly digital with the passing over every single day. “There is a price to pay for convenience beyond the cost of the device. We put insurance on the hone and buy a case but the most important thing is what is inside the phone.”
Echemendia is working on creating cybersecurity that is easily digestible and will empower people to project themselves, so that we can act independently of corporate practices that serve the bottom line first. Echemendia reveals, “It is more a human issue than a technology issue…. We need to have these discussions so that we are more aware, with information that is accessible and digestible to the masses in order to make the world a better place.”
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.