With many years of experience and his deep knowledge of the field, Ondrej Krehel is one of the top experts on cybersecurity and the founder and CEO of LIFARS. LIFARS is a digital forensics and cybersecurity intelligence company based in New York with an office in Bratislava as well.
Ondrej, what brought you to cybersecurity? Have you always wanted to work in the field?
I have always been very curious about mathematical algebra, and the most simplistic one was binary interpretation in computer systems, of course except quantum and other computer systems. Since my studies at university, I’ve always enjoyed breaking computer code and have been interested in operating systems’ security structures. Major in mathematical physics helped me bring a scientific view into the filed. At one point, I was able to break a complicated encryption system designed by one of the Swiss banks in a case within the US Department of Justice. I truly enjoy what I do, and I’m very passionate about it.
You have been in many different cybersecurity positions and jobs, such as computer analyst, digital forensic examiner, professor at a university, until you ended up as the founder and CEO of your own company. The history is rich. What made you, eventually, decide to launch your own company?
I’ve always wanted to master many verticals in the industry, with a belief that one day I can execute on my own with a team of elite professionals around me. However, I also feel that I’m not the perfect candidate for the CEO, since I have never executed two companies prior to LIFARS with a successful exit, neither have I ever wanted to hold an operational position. Throughout my professional career, I was an industry expert even when I was holding the executive CISO (Chief Information Security Officer – editor’s note) roles.
When you look back from today´s perspective, what have been the biggest challenges you had to face?
The biggest challenge is connecting talented people with the required skill set. There is only 4% of people on the planet, according to various statistics, that can build something. The rest of the population can manage something or watch what just happened. The biggest challenge is to find that 4% and convince them that LIFARS is the place for them to be. Spirit and culture is everything, and no one wants to hire underachievers or “gurus” with no magical impact.
I read that your company is simply “a team of hackers fighting on the good side”. Many people only carry negative connotations with the word hacker in their minds. If you had to simply explain who a hacker is, what would you say?
Leonardo Da Vinci was a hacker, Steve Jobs was a hacker. Hackers are professionals with a skill set to break or decode something that others could not. Steve Jobs decoded the interaction of technology with humans and created systems that most of the world population believes to be computer and digital world today. Hackers are naturally driven by mental stimulus of understanding how something can be done differently, how it can be decoded (like breaking encryption).
How do you look for and hire the best people in the field? What is your strategy?
It’s very hard to find the talent, unless it presents and proves itself. This is a part of a tribal woodoo—finding the talent as Herb Brooks pointed out. He did not create the best hockey team on the planet, just a team that won against Soviet Union at the Lake Placid 1980 Olympics. LIFARS team has to be better than its market opponents.
What are the main areas you as LIFARS cover? What services do you offer?
Our primary focus is Incident Response, but we also offer digital forensic investigations, red team of hackers and secure code reviews, cybersecurity partner integrations, and cybersecurity advisory and training.
In an interview for the Startitup portal, you said that „Our incident response team is something like elite digital firemen.“ I really like that idea. Can you elaborate on it? What is the role of your team?
We are often compared to digital firefighters, emergency room ambulance for cyber injuries. Around 60-80% of the work comes through those cyber emergencies. You need to think about LIFARS team as a military unit with precision to resolve any cyber situation. Green Beret service of the cybersecurity world.
Can we dive deeper into the forensics analysis part? What does it mean and how do you perform the service?
Digital forensic science is an important part of what we do when we receive digital evidence. We use commercial software as well as open source tools to analyze digital evidence. This part is like criminal investigation science that you can see on TV.
What is your unique value proposition when compared to your competition? How strong are they?
Our competition is super strong and a lot of the competitors are very well-funded. Our unique value proposition lies in the deeper diversified skill set of our team, meaning we do forensic and hacking as one unified vertical. It’s a real cyber war zone experience. Our teams can be deployed and engaged to the battle with cyber adversaries more efficiently.
What are your and LIFARS plans for the near future?
To create a bigger team and enjoy what we do. At the end of the day, life is always a battle and we just need to keep fighting for our market share.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in the cybersecurity in the present and towards the future, and how do you think we can tackle them?
The publicity of cybersecurity and low criminal prosecution are the major obstacles in the current landscape. We have many “industry experts” rising as the religion reforms of the 16th-18th century. The biggest challenge is to face the professionals within the industry who are not able to create a common language and business tools to demystify security for humans. Picture that cybersecurity vendors would run your telecommunication. Most likely, you would not be able to make phone calls. Cybersecurity vendors sell tools that do not even provide collaboration possibilities with others, called APIs.
The second challenge is the human engineering talent to design code and, at the same time, to enjoy breaking the computer code. At the end of the day, computers do not attack systems, human hacking talent does.
Tackling cybersecurity issues needs deeper collaboration of experts and nations. However, the divided world would more likely be closer to a declaration of war by cyber-attack than to its unification.
Photos: Ondrej Krehel