Howard Schmidt: Forcing intelligent cyber conversation

P121709LJ-0023.jpg

President Barack Obama greets his new White House Cyber Security Chief Howard A. Schmidt in the Cross Hall of the White House, Dec. 17, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

If memory serves, I first spoke to Howard Schmidt when he was with the Information Security Forum around 2008 – a cold call by me, a cybersecurity reporter at the time, to someone that touted the FBI, the White House, Microsoft and eBay on his resume.

I don’t remember my questions. But I remember he was gracious. Respectful. He spoke without a load of jargon, not because he thought it would go above my head (though perhaps then it would have) but because he knew real speak was the only way for people to understand the gravity of this challenge – the cybersecurity challenge. Speaking about network intrusions and attack signatures and authentication was important in certain circles, but it wouldn’t make even the technology executives I wrote for take the threat seriously. Not then anyway. They needed to know their intellectual property – the secret sauce of their business – could be put at risk. They needed to know their bank accounts could be drained.

That’s why Howard was so good at communicating about this challenge even before many acknowledged it existed in a real way. He knew how to make a reporter with a lot to learn understand why we all needed to take it seriously. He did the same for executives of Fortune 100 tech companies that typically think they know better, for grandstanding legislators, for the president of the United States, and I suspect for the typical family seated around any dinner table.

He was not out to instill fear. But he was out to offer a dose of reality. To make everybody understand.

I was sad to hear of his passing for the same reasons others were. He was a thought leader in an industry that still needs a lot of thought leaders. He was a megaphone for a critical threat that, if not properly addressed, will grow only more debilitating. We still have a long ways to go in tackling cybersecurity and the world still needs Howard Schmidt’s dose of reality – wrapped in that gracious, respectful approach that made people admire him and better digest his words.

I spoke to Howard once about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Those events of course influenced what eventually became the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, an effort to encourage and enable information sharing by ensuring it would not compromise the security or integrity of data or networks in the process. The effort was met with mixed response, Howard told me. (He was appointed special adviser for cyberspace security for the White House in December 2001.)

“Some people argued ‘cyber is not involved – we need to find stuff to stop people from blowing things up,’” he said when we spoke. “They wanted a paragraph or two, not a strategy. Dick and I had to fight tooth and nail and Tom Ridge finally shut them down, saying ‘no more. We’re doing it.’”

He, as well as Tom Ridge and Dick Clarke, then-chief White House counterterrorism adviser, were among a handful that, thank goodness, were loud voices in the room then, at a time when people were still learning. Fifteen years later, we all know more, but we still need voices like Howard’s. They’re out there – but I hope they realize that now they need to yell even louder.