Immortalised in the movie Catch Me If You Can, former conman Frank Abagnale is now a world-famous FBI security expert.
Read the FBI security expert’s analysis of the recent global cyber attacks, the firing of FBI Director James Comey – and why he believes hacking will soon be used by terrorists.
1) What is your take on the recent cyber attacks that affected 150 countries? Is another attack imminent?
The scale and speed by which the virus spread has never been seen before, but the worst is yet to come. The same virus could hit a nuclear power plant, a water dam or a metro train. Consequently, the effect would be devastating.
The root cause of the threat is simple: static passwords which are insecure and easily copied. Cyber crooks are taking advantage of simple passwords and computers that aren’t patched. As long as static passwords are used, the threat will remain. The internet is a powder keg that is just waiting to explode.
2) What are the main cyber security threats facing companies and governments, and what technologies can they put in place to protect themselves?
Up until now, cyber crime has been committed by people seeking financial gain or stealing data. I believe in the next few years cyber crimes are going to turn very black.
For example, we now have the ability to shut off or speed up someone’s pacemaker, but we need to be within 35ft of the victim. We can take over a vehicle in a chase and cut off the engine, lock the doors and windows, even turn on the air bag. In the next five years you may be able to do this from thousands of miles away.
Also, I believe that cyber crimes will turn to assassinations, taking over railroads, electrical grids, and be used as a terrorist’s tool. We have the technology to prevent these things, but technology is only good if it is implemented.
3) Why does “technology breed crime” and what to do you mean by “social engineering”?
Fifty years ago, for me to forge checks, I needed a Heidelberg printing press that cost $1 million. In addition, it required three journeymen printers, colour separations, negatives, plates, etc. Today, the same document can be created on a laptop in a matter of minutes.
I used social engineering to obtain a pilot’s uniform. I called Pan Am and told them that my uniform had been lost by the cleaners in the hotel. The Pan Am employee then told me where to go to get the uniform. This type of social engineering still goes on but with a new twist thanks to technology.
Today, a corporate accounting department receives an email from the CEO requesting employees’ payroll files. The CEO never sent the email. Please understand that there is no technology today − nor will there ever be one − that can defeat social engineering. You only stop it through education.
For example, that individual in the accounting department should have been taught that that was an unusual request. He/she should have gone to the CEO’s office and asked if he/she sent the email. Remember, hackers do not cause breaches − people do.
4) Are you able to comment on the recent dismissal of FBI Director James Comey?
It is important that people remember the FBI is made up of over 13,000 agents and over 21,000 support staff. They are the most competent, honest, ethical and independent individuals working for the federal government. Therefore, whatever is to be investigated will be done so without any political considerations. The Director is appointed by the President and serves at the President’s discretion. He/she can be dismissed for cause or no cause at any time.
5) Are you tired of people referring to you as the “the world’s greatest conman”? What would you tell your younger self if you met him?
Great question! Referring to me as ‘the world’s greatest con man’ is absurd, as I was a teenager. Every day we read about criminals, CEOs, politicians and investment bankers that have stolen $50 million. How can I be the world’s greatest conman?
When you make a mistake in life, you have to live with that mistake for a long time. Some people tend to constantly judge you on your past deeds, no matter what good you have done since then. Yes, what I did 50 years ago is a burden I live with every day of my life − and I will until my death.
“It is amazing to me that check forgery, counterfeiting and alteration of checks are making a comeback.” - Read another interview with FBI security expert Frank Abagnale in Future Banking.