The Ethical Hacker: ‘All of us can be hacked. Get over it’

Ralph Echemendia has advised some of tech's biggest companies on security (Photo: Zachary Balber)Ralph Echemendia has advised some of tech’s biggest companies on security (Photo: Zachary Balber)

Luckily, Echemendia is an ethical hacker: one of the good guys dedicated to educating the less computer-literate about dangers lurking in cyberspace. A world-renowned security expert, he’s helped to train Google, Microsoft and Nasa’s technical teams, and consulted on the Hollywood films Savages and Snowden, as well as the hit television series Mr Robot.

Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Echemendia was 14 when he discovered hacking. He and a friend were looking for porn using a Commodore 64 computer and browsing pre-internet bulletin board systems (BBS) – early computer networks where enthusiasts exchanged messages, played games and uploaded files.

The Matrix: an exercise in biohacking (Photo: Warner Bros)The Matrix: an exercise in biohacking (Photo: Warner Bros)

“Back then, there was no Google to look up how something works,” he explains. “There was a Commodore just blinking at me, and I didn’t know what to tell it to do, or how. I read something on the BBSs called The Hacker Manifesto, written by this guy called The Mentor, and realised that was what I was.

“Most people tend to be scared of computers. The truth is, computers are very dumb. They do exactly what you tell them to do, they don’t do anything else. They don’t know how to think. Even artificial intelligence is just programming.”

‘For the greater good’

Echemendia won’t reveal his age, and is sketchy about his methods. Asked for his “hacker handle”, the user name he would have used on the BBSs, he laughs. “If there was any time I may have crossed the [legal] line, it would have been then, so I’m not going to tell you.”

Despite his natural aptitude for computing, Echemendia chooses to hack “for the greater good” rather than hold businesses to ransom. As a “white hat” hacker who uses his specialist knowledge to seek out bugs and vulnerabilities in companies’ computer systems, he is part of an elite group whose members are among the highest-paid people in the IT industry.

Ralph Echemendia, the ethical hacker who advises films on accurate portrayals of cyber attacks

“We all know ‘hacking’ as a term, particularly through the press, with a criminal context to it, but within our world, hacking is more about finding a way to make something do something it wasn’t intended to do,” he says. “I was able to work out very early how to break into systems legitimately, and decided to teach people how to do it. It was one way to monetise my skills without breaking any laws.”

Echemendia’s interest in the entertainment industry led to his working with Bob Marley’s family to create a secure online ticketing system.

A private investigations company hired him when unreleased tracks from rapper Eminem’s 2011 album Recovery were stolen and leaked online. Echemendia spent two months following a trail of digital evidence that led him to a 16-year-old boy in Saudi Arabia who had managed to access the Gmail account of someone close to the rapper and steal the audio files.

Later that year, he was asked to track down those responsible for leaking photographs and videos from the film Twilight: Breaking Dawn. “Because I knew how to do it, I could easily work out how it had been done – I became an expert witness,” he says. As a result of the case, he is often asked to consult with film-makers on the authenticity of scenes involving computers and hacking.

All of us can be hacked. Get over it

Echemendia says the notion of “total protection” in the online world is as false as that of complete safety in the real world. “You can learn martial arts or get a gun, but that doesn’t mean you’re not gonna get hit in the head,” he says.

“It’s the same problem for everyone: if you’re a doctor, a celebrity, an office worker or a janitor – we all carry a supercomputer in our pockets and there hasn’t been any innovation since the invention of the antivirus, and that’s 25-year-old technology.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight Breaking Dawn

“Technology brings us a lot more convenience than it hurts us – you can’t operate today without it. Without the information which is now in a digital form about you, you don’t exist to the world.”

While there is no silver bullet that will prevent every intrusion by hackers, there are precautionary measures everyone should take.

“I recommend everybody put tape over their webcam,” he says. “I can certainly turn on your webcam without the light [coming on], and [turn on] your microphone without you knowing.

“I can do the same with a phone, and there are more phones than computers. If you’re above the ground, you’re at risk of getting hacked. Get over it. You shouldn’t be asking why they do it, you should ask how they do it.”

Written by Rhiannon Williams for iNews UK