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National Defender

Posted by on Monday, September 20, 2010 in Fall 2010, Feature.

Philip Reitinger, BE’84, leads the charge to protect the nation’s computer security.
Like other engineers, Philip Reitinger, BE’84, has made a career of building bridges. But the divide that he has spanned is between corporations and government and between technology and policy.

Reitinger is the Department of Homeland Security’s deputy under secretary of the National Protection and Programs Directorate and director of the National Cyber Security Center.

Those are big titles and increasingly important roles to both the American public and to the government. In Homeland Security’s quadrennial review of the nation’s security, cybersecurity joined weapons of mass destruction, violent extremists and terrorism, transnational crime and natural disasters as the most pressing issues threatening homeland security.

Security in the Connected Age

“We’re putting computers into everything now,” says Reitinger, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt School of Engineering. “We’re building a broad array of highly complex devices. Most of these things are connected in deep ways to one another and to the Internet. These computers can reach from anywhere to anywhere, which is great. We no longer just say, ‘I use my computer to type documents.’ Now we watch TV, listen to music, send emails, all using computers. Increasingly we’re using computers to keep our food cold and do banking. So this network of computers is moving toward greater complexity, greater connectivity and greater criticality.”

Despite the importance of computers to everything from power plants to home refrigerators, “there are huge, grand challenges,” he says. “How do we actually make security easier for people?” Reitinger believes that even as people and companies try to keep their computers secure, there are others trying to undermine that security. “We’re in an environment now where if someone devotes the time and resources, they’ll find a way,” he says. “That’s not a sustainable place to be.”

The potential harm has grown along with the sophistication of the hackers Reitinger has seen throughout his career. “When I first got involved in working on cybersecurity, we were at the tail end of the ‘hacker and cracker’ [phase] of somebody seeking a reputation,” he says. “They’d attack a webpage and scrawl across it. That’s not where we are anymore. Cybercrime is about getting access to real money or information of value and there are individual hackers and groups. It runs the gamut and some elements are highly organized.”

Though cybersecurity is his main focus, as deputy under secretary he’s also concerned about the full range of dangers to the nation, including protecting federal facilities, infrastructure, risk management and analysis, and US-VISIT, the biometric program that identifies people entering the United States.

En Garde

Reitinger has had a front-row seat as cybercrime has shifted, but it was never a seat he intended to take when he graduated from the School of Engineering. The self-described computer geek came to Vanderbilt with a straightforward career path in computers in mind — though an extracurricular activity might have been a clue to his future. He was a member of the fencing team, a “broad group of people who were all quirky in some way,” he says. “It may be a sport that draws quirky people.”

(Though he gave up fencing — a sport he admits he wasn’t very good at — his future wife was a member of a national championship women’s team. “I make sure that I don’t make her angry,” he says.)

Late in his senior year, he took the LSAT just to see how well he would do. He did well enough to be accepted to Yale, and that led his thoughts to a future in patent law.

Reitinger quickly found another path, one that would allow him to bridge technology and policy: He entered government service. Jobs followed at the Department of Justice, where he was deputy chief of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property division, and executive director of the Department of Defense’s Cyber Crime Center. He also spent six years at Microsoft, becoming chief trustworthy infrastructure strategist before returning to the federal government in 2009.

Experience with both government and corporations has helped Reitinger understand the critical role that each plays in cybersecurity. “You learn different things in government and industry, and both of them have their advantage,” Reitinger says. “The pace of change in this space far exceeds most areas with which government or industry has to deal.”

Helping Defend Your Country

He sees the importance of cross-pollination between government and industry. “The biggest piece of getting the job done is having the right people. Making sure that we can keep bringing in the right people, people from the private sector, is also a significant challenge since we don’t pay what the private sector does,” he says. “But it’s a way of helping to defend your country. You’ll get responsibilities that you’d never get in the private sector.”

His ability to understand the technology, via his engineering degree, and policy, aided by law school, has made Reitinger a rarity in Washington. That position is familiar to the Jacksonville, Fla., native, who still builds the occasional computer at home as a hobby.

“I have tried to be somewhat interdisciplinary in my career. Though I have a technical degree from Vanderbilt, it is a university that, even for people who are deeply mired in the technical side, gives experiences that are much broader. It is a liberal arts university for engineers as well,” he says, noting his VUSE education gave him a much broader educational experience to bring to law school.

“I’ve done things that involve both technology and policy,” Reitinger says. “If you find things that you’re passionate about, you’ll have a great career no matter what.”

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