Computer security wizard Rafal Rohozinski’s exposure of international cyber-espionage last year reinforced his long-held warning — computers can potentially cause more damage than a nuclear bomb. Vito Pilieci talked to him about the threats to come.
From Global News
Vito Pilieci, The Ottawa Citizen: Monday, January 11, 2010
People to Watch in 2010
In 2009, cyber security wizard Rafal Rohozinski was a player in two international news stories that dramatically illustrated the power of computer systems to do both good and evil.
In April, the Centretown resident and his colleagues in Canada and abroad exposed GhostNet, a sinister cyber-espionage ring that compromised 1,300 computers in high-ranking organizations worldwide. Through their sleuthing, it was revealed that hackers, linked to servers in China, could download files and even activate microphones and web cameras.
GhostNet caught the world’s attention and reinforced the warning Rohozinski, 44, has been quietly repeating for years — computers can potentially cause more damage than a nuclear bomb. When it comes to warfare, he says, “cyberspace is a domain that is equal to that of land, sea and space.”
If you think he’s overstating the case, imagine the casualty rate if a computer virus shut down the North American power grid for weeks in the dead of winter.
“This is such a bloody highly effective weapon,” he says.
Then, in June, the world’s attention turned to Iran, as citizens took to the streets to protest the results of the presidential election. When the Iranian government tried to cripple the resistance by shutting down social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, protesters used Psiphon, a service created by Rohozinski, to continue to organize.
While there are other programs and services that break through Internet restrictions, Psiphon is the only one that doesn’t require any technical expertise and it works on cellular phones. At the time, Rohozinski said Psiphon went on the offensive to ensure “Iranians have access to the information they need and deserve …”
Although Psiphon will no doubt continue to make news, Rohozinski believes it is his crusade against cyber-Armageddon that will finally get the attention it deserves in 2010. And although he will continue a gruelling travel schedule to meet with clients around the world, he doesn’t see any reason to switch from his base in Ottawa.
Born in Warsaw, Rohozinski grew up in Ottawa when his parents, both doctors, emigrated here. After travelling the world over, Rohozinski returned to Ottawa to be close to his family. He also saw the nation’s capital as the ideal place to kick off his cyber peacemaking crusade.
“You realize if you’re going to change the world you need to start with your own neighbourhood,” he says.
Rohozinski is proud of the fact that his house is a stone’s throw from Igor Gouzenko’s apartment. Gouzenko is the Soviet Embassy clerk who defected in 1945 with files revealing the extent of Soviet espionage, including the technique of planting “sleeper” agents.
Rohozinski’s target is sleeper computer viruses that can be activated at will. Russia and China are believed to have been stockpiling hackers and malicious software capable of devastating countries’ economies. Recent investigations have found inactive computer viruses hiding in various North American infrastructure, including the hydro grid. Once activated, these viruses have the ability to shut down North America’s communications, electricity and commerce.
Rohozinski has been involved in cyber security for more than 18 years, helping more than 37 countries repel Internet-related attacks. He even served as the embedded chief technical adviser to the Palestinian Authority in 2006.
In addition to his two companies, SecDev and Psiphon, Rohozinski is the co-founder of the Information Warfare Monitor, a world renowned cyber warfare research group, and the OpenNet Initiative, which focuses on Asia.
His work in the field has earned him the ear of governments everywhere. He is regularly called upon by officials across Europe as well as in the United States and in Canada.
He applauds the decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to earmark more than $17 billion toward the global cyber arms race.
Rohozinski says that just as the world attempts to restrict nuclear proliferation with “some kind of verification regime, arms control regime, some kind of rules of war that essentially allow nation states to determine and be a bit more predictable in terms of when these weapons can be used and under what circumstances,” the same must be done in cyberspace.
To help advance his crusade, Rohozinski and his SecDev Group have partnered with American analytics firm Palantir to create a suite of tools capable of mapping, analysing and tracking cyber espionage, hackers and terrorist groups that may be using the Internet to mobilize sleeper cells around the world.
“There really isn’t an ability to map that really well, or to understand the intersection between how these groups operate in real space and how they operate in cyberspace,” he said. “There is a real vacuum in terms of tools. That’s really where our expertise lies, in how to do that.”
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About Rafal Rohozinski
Title: CEO, Psiphon Inc. and CEO, SecDev Group.
Neighbourhood now: Centretown.
Family: Married with one child, 21/2, and another on the way.
Personal Hero: Admires people who used a position of authority to make tough and unpopular decisions, like Mikhail Gorbachev and Teddy Roosevelt.
What actor would play you in a Hollywood film? George Clooney.
Little known fact: Was a martial arts instructor for many years.
Quote: “For me, being able to change the paradigm entirely is appealing … We need to adapt our policing to deal with globalized, atomized, hard-to-detect threats. But we need to do this in a fashion where we collect as little information about innocent people as possible.”
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