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The Good Hacker

  • Written by Chris Higgins
  • Published in Tech
  • 0 comments
BY CHRIS HIGGINS

As digital security breaches skyrocket, a cybersleuth everyman takes center stage.

BY CHRIS HIGGINS | PHOTOS BY SAM SCOTT

As digital crime skyrockets, a cybersleuth everyman takes center stage.

OBM Tripwire-2

Hot fingerprints: Ken Westin uses a thermal camera to ‘steal’ an elevator PIN pad number.

Ken Westin stands in a downtown Portland office elevator holding an iPhone with a chunky thermal camera on its back. He punches random numbers on the elevator PIN pad, then holds up the phone and snaps a picture. In the photo, bright yellow spots jump out on the numbers two, three and six, where his finger has left momentary heat traces. “That’s all it takes,” he says calmly.

Westin has just “stolen” an elevator PIN code. Theoretically, he says, thieves could use similar technology to swipe debit card PIN codes and clear out bank accounts, although it’s uncertain whether thermal cameras have actually been used for that purpose. But “it’s possible,” says Westin, who knows whereof he speaks, having tested the procedure on a variety of PIN pads around Portland.

The 39-year-old Westin is a senior security analyst at Tripwire, a Portland software firm that makes digital security and compliance products for businesses. He describes himself as a “cybercriminologist,” a technology geek who spends his days researching new cyber threats like stealing pin codes and the latest hacking methods.

{pullquote}Ken is one of those individuals who can live in two worlds.    {/pullquote}

Most people are aware that cyber crime costs individuals and businesses billions of dollars every year. The amount of money companies are shelling out to combat it continues to skyrocket. Worldwide spending on information security grew 7.9% in 2014, and will grow another 8.2% in 2015, reaching $76.9 billion, according to Gartner, a Stamford-based technology research firm. The International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that global revenue for security and vulnerability management companies was $4 billion in 2013, with the average company’s annual growth rate at roughly 10%.

Tripwire is near the top of the pack. The company ranks among the top five SVM cybersecurity firms in the world, and is expanding in this sector faster than all but IBM, according to IDC. Tripwire revenue is currently growing at 20% year-over-year, booking $160 million in 2014. “We will end up being the next billion-dollar security company,” CEO Jim Johnson told Oregon Business in January. That same month, Tripwire was acquired by St. Louis-based Belden, a maker of networking products and cables. Post acquisition, Tripwire continues to operate independently and remains headquartered in Portland.

Westin is on the frontlines of this rapidly growing marketplace. Sporting half-rim glasses and a ready grin, he exudes an easygoing intelligence and makes frequent appearances on TV explaining digital crime to the masses. But he also works obsessively behind the scenes: using forensic tools to track down digital thieves and hacking into computer networks as part of security certifications. “Ken is an ace,” Johnson says, “He’s one of those individuals who can live in two worlds.”

Actually, Westin inhabits many worlds. Navigating an industry that is both a pop culture phenomenon (Sony hack, anyone?) and a critical operation for businesses, Westin is one of thousands of software developers who have reshaped downtown Portland in the past five years. In that sense, Westin is a cybersleuth everyman, emblematic of a new breed of tech worker, and the continued penetration of technology into all aspects of culture and economy, high and low.

“As security guys have more power within their organizations, they’re forced to grow up and start speaking the language of business.” Westin says. “You can’t just be in the basement and do your little hacks anymore.” Security professionals traverse darker boundaries, he says. “I met with a law enforcement official a while back who said there’s a fine line between cop and criminal. I can think like a criminal. I like understanding the mind of a hacker, but doing good with [that knowledge].”


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