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Irwin native among 'white hat' hackers hired to protect computer networks

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Growing up in Irwin, Adam Cecchetti says he never hacked into a cellphone, a website or a company's software for malicious reasons.

Now living in Seattle, he spends almost every moment trying to defeat those people who do. He and two partners formed a company called Déjà vu Security that large corporations can hire to break into computer systems before the bad guys get there.

“Some people hack for political reasons, some hack for financial reasons, some hack for activism,” Cecchetti, 31, told the Tribune-Review. “Before folks can use a bug for whatever their reason that may not be on the up and up, we hack the device, and we hack the software.”

Cecchetti represents a breed of computer experts that has risen to fight computer attackers bent on disruption, theft and even destruction.

The Trib's ongoing “Cyber Rattling: The Next Threat” series has reported about how online attacks — such as ones against PNC Bank and other U.S. banks — are part of an ongoing international war over information systems. Attackers are becoming more sophisticated as they seek to trigger computer incidents.

Cyber attacks are costing corporations — and consumers — a lot. In a six-year span starting in 2005, data breaches in 33 countries, including the United States, cost the firms involved more than $156 billion, according to the nonprofit Digital Forensics Association.

Every second, in various parts of the world, there are 18 cybercrime victims — about 1.6 million a day — according to a 2012 Norton by Symantec study.

For the white hats, their unique skill at finding where a program is vulnerable and how to close the digital doors that the black hats use to penetrate a website is worth $120,000 to $130,000 a year, said Chad Thunberg, chief operating officer at Leviathan Security Group , a 20-person firm in Seattle.

“Companies are being attacked by bad people, and if they want to defend themselves, they have to attract these scarce people,” he said. “There are maybe 1,000 individuals of this nature in the world. They have this unique hacker mind-set.”

While malicious hackers have to find just one glitch to get inside a machine or software program, defenders must try to close up every hole. Cecchetti said his company works to identify and close as many openings as it can find.

“It's a bit of a game of cat-and-mouse with security,” he said. “One hundred percent defense is impossible. … We're raising the bar so it's more difficult or not worth the hackers' time.”

Cecchetti said he became interested in computers as a student at Greensburg Central Catholic High School, where he graduated in 1999, writing software for games and building websites. He pursued a computer science degree from Latrobe's St. Vincent College in 2003, where he also did some systems administration work.

Then at Carnegie Mellon University, he earned a master's degree in information networking from the school of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2005. Hired by Amazon to protect its systems from hackers, he moved to Seattle after graduation.

His parents, Thomas and Dawn, remain in Western Pennsylvania, having moved to Slippery Rock, and Cecchetti said he still catches Steelers games on TV. But he has no plans to boomerang back.

“I will always be a Pittsburgh boy, but Seattle's kind of my hometown now,” he said.

The Seattle Times contributed to this story. Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or aconte@tribweb.com.

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