Meet the team: Keith Smith
One of the factors that sets r9B (root9B) apart is the talent the company has attracted. Keith Smith, Vice President of Threat Intelligence, sat down to answer a few questions and give some personal insight for this month’s “Meet the Team.”
Like many of our team members, Keith spent much of his military career working alongside future r9B employees, including CEO Eric Hipkins. Keith worked with Eric over 15 years ago conducting cyber operations at the National Security Agency (NSA). They had a common background as Army NCOs and soon became good friends.
Surprisingly, Keith’s initial life plans did not include either the military or cyber operations. In high school, Keith envisioned life as a minister. Later, he worked in the surgery department of a hospital and became a certified first assistant. This opportunity led to his interest in becoming a surgeon.
“Ultimately, I joined the Army, and a series of tests revealed that I had somehow inherited a talent for foreign languages. While I didn’t necessarily believe those test results initially, they turned out to be spot on. Today, I speak more than ten languages, and I continue studying them all daily.”
After his assignment with the NSA, Keith embarked upon a more sensitive tour of duty. He found that tour to be difficult as he was not able to maintain close contact with anyone, for operational reasons, for about nine years. As he was preparing to retire from the Army, Keith remembered the old friends with whom he’d worked, and he reached out to them. He knew several of them had already made successful transitions to the commercial sector.
“When I called Eric, I wasn’t aware that r9B had been started, but he invited me to apply here. I was later interviewed by a panel including the COO, CTO, and several other key leaders. In those days, we were still very small. I think I was employee number 24 when they hired me.”
Upon his retirement from active duty in January 2015, Keith began his career at r9B as Director of Threat Intelligence. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to Vice President of Threat Intelligence. r9B experienced rapid growth shortly after Keith joined the team. He went from working with a small group to leading a team of his own.
“For a lot of us, I would say it isn’t unlike what we experienced over the course of our previous careers, except it’s been accelerated. We all moved from positions as team members to leading small teams, then larger and larger teams.”
For Keith, the most rewarding part of working at r9B is helping his team locate, identify, and, especially, attribute the malicious actors in our clients’ networks. Increasingly, cyber security and physical security overlap. Often, the research and attribution efforts Keith and his team provide contribute to the physical security of our clients.
Countless stories of cybersecurity breaches litter today’s headlines. These stories illustrate the ever-present danger threatening our cyber ecosystem. While cybersecurity companies understand the situation, the question is whether the marketplace fathoms the full extent of the threat.
“I can’t deny that there has been a lot of progress in terms of recognition of the problem, but I still believe that many underestimate the imperative for a strong cyber defense of their businesses.”
Unfortunately, organizations often view cybersecurity as a cost rather than an asset.
“When cybersecurity is viewed as a cost center, businesses tend to follow the herd and go with lowest cost bids, as opposed to seeking highly-effective solutions which protect their future revenues. When you go with the lowest-cost bid, you tend to get what you pay for in this industry.”
Keith believes that r9B’s approach is what sets the company apart. While serving as a military intelligence NCO, he adopted his corps’ motto: “Always Out Front.” This mindset fits well with cybersecurity, particularly Threat Intelligence. r9B conducts Threat Intelligence operations within the parameters of “TARP.” If an intelligence product is not timely, accurate, relevant and predictive (TARP), it has little to no operational value. While the marketplace has made some headway on this front, there is still a long way to go to develop actionable threat intelligence.
In every engagement, r9B combines advanced technology with innovative techniques. Yet, Keith points out that r9B does not rely on technology. Instead, the company relies on savvy operators to frustrate, disrupt and defeat the threat: a human adversary. Technology is an incredibly valuable tool, but relying on passive technologies will not stop the threat. Just as with a castle wall, it cannot repel a determined foe without the support of trained human defenders.
“Our constant focus is on the bad guy on the other end of the exploit. As an organization, we have a mission focus that we have imported from our backgrounds in counterintelligence, counterterrorism and direct support to warfighters. We love this role, and we excel in it.”
When asked what a “normal” day looks like at r9B, Keith replied:
“Sure, there are ‘normal’ days here at r9B, and you grow used to the things that would certainly stand out at many other companies. Because of our backgrounds, we tend to be very comfortable with chaos, but I think anyone who works in cybersecurity who claims to be bored just isn’t paying much attention. Every day there is a new challenge. What I love about Threat Intelligence is that we have the ability to contribute to the success of all sorts of operations here, from HUNT to Network Defense Operations.”
Keith believes there is a genuine curiosity about r9B’s work in the community. He attributes much of that interest to the professional reputations of the company’s talented employees.