Halvar Flake started out as a Viking.
Thats how he got his hacker handle: As a teenager, Flakes friends called him Halvar, after a burly cartoon character from the village of Flake in a children's television cartoon. (See the large, red-bearded viking on the left.)
The chief of a Viking village on the television show was a big Viking called Halvar, recalls Flake, aka Thomas Dullien, CEO and head of research for German security firm Zynamics (formerly Sabre Security). I was short, fat, had long hair, and was drinking a lot of beer, so people called me Halvar.
The blond and trim 62 Flake in no way resembles the cartoon Viking Halvar these days. Flake, 27, has been a fixture at Black Hat meetings as an instructor since he and a friend from Sri Lanka first did briefings there in Amsterdam in 2000 so they could meet up (inexpensively ) with one another in person. We couldnt afford the flight tickets [between Sri Lanka], so we decided to present at the same conference, Flake says. So I submitted a talk to Black Hat, and was flown to the conference.
Flakes first Black Hat talk was on reverse-engineering to find bugs, and hes been doing training sessions at Black Hat on reverse-engineering techniques ever since. He stands out (both physically and virtually) at Black Hat and within the security community for his pioneering work over the past decade in reverse-engineering code for vulnerabilities and to dissect malware.
Even so, Flake tries to keep a low profile in the hacker community, avoiding the politics of some bogus attention-getting debates he says have no real resolution anyway. But Flake did get accidentally get caught up some big-time politics last summer on his way to Black Hat USA in Las Vegas, where he was scheduled to conduct his training session. (See Researcher Barred From US.)
Flake was detained for several hours by U.S. Customs , and ultimately denied entry in to the U.S. due to some confusion over his visa and independent work status for Black Hat. He was questioned following the discovery of his presentation in his travel materials. Flake since has obtained a business visa for subsequent visits to the U.S.
You have no rights, because your immediate status is not actually in the country... When you are detained there, you have no rights to call your lawyer, he says. Knowing you have no rights and you are at [the] whim of [the] guy over the counter is not pleasant.
Ironically, Flake had originally planned to become a lawyer, not a security researcher. The day he was signing up for his university classes, he switched over to mathematics at the last minute. When you apply for law school in Germany, a central agency determines where you go and study. In my case, they wanted to send me somewhere I didnt want to go. I was standing in line with my college application in hand and chose mathematics instead, so hed have more flexibility, he says. He also studied computer science.
Hes currently finishing up his masters degree and will begin his PhD thesis later this year -- all while running his company, Zynamics, which is primarily funded with research prize money he won for his companys malware-classification technology. That 100,000 has helped keep him free of venture capital funding, which he sees as too restrictive.
Reverse engineering is still a niche market. Any VC is going to want to drag us out of that niche and into some hip and trendy market... I am quite happy where I am now, he says. Not that I would refuse money if it was offered without a few strings."
Zynamics sells Flakes reverse-engineering tools and is making a profit now, he says, although he has used up all of his prize money. (See 10 Hot Security Startups.)
Meanwhile, Flake says the learning curve for hacking is getting steeper, and the number of new researchers coming on the scene seems to be dwindling a bit. I see fewer youngsters coming up, he says. The entire field is maturing.
Many of his contemporaries, for example, started with hacking, foregoing college altogether. But Flake says that model is shifting, as universities begin catching up with security programs. I think youre going to now need to study for a year or two or three before getting up to speed, given the maturity of the market, he says.
And Flake doesnt lose much sleep over the malware and other things he sees in his daily reverse-engineering work. In the end, I think Im way more scared of global warming or erosion... than of anything in security. Security isnt half as important as most of us think it is.
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio