Hacking into the Flathead

Cris Neckar’s career has evolved from cybersecurity hacker to chief information security officer working out of his Whitefish home

By Maggie Dresser
Cris Neckar, cybersecurity expert and Chief Information Security Officer for Spring Labs, pictured at his home in Whitefish on Oct. 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Shortly after Whitefish resident Cris Neckar dropped out of computer engineering school at Marquette University in Milwaukee in 2004, he hacked into a financial company’s security system and obtained access to all of its backend data.

It was his first day working for a cybersecurity consulting company where he was hired to break into cybersecurity systems to find their weaknesses, and the company’s lawyer got a call from the business that Neckar had just hacked, wondering what had happened. After a miscommunication between each company involved, Neckar thought he was going to get fired on his first day of work.

“It’s what you call a penetration test,” Neckar said. “A company says, ‘We want to hire hackers to tell us what they were able to do and how they did it’ … At the time, this was all brand new. Nobody had any idea of the implications and it really was the Wild West.”

Since then, Neckar has crashed a party at the Playboy Mansion, broken into satellites and banks, worked at Google and operated his own consulting company.

Now, he’s broken away from the hacking side of the industry and is the Chief Information Security Officer for Spring Labs, a data exchange company based out of Los Angeles. Instead of breaking into systems, he develops different ways to access information.

“Our CEO convinced me the real problem in security is not about breaking, or mitigation technology or preventing people from breaking into things,” he said. “It’s actually about access to information.”

Neckar describes the internet as a library of data exchange, or a way to share information. But when cybersecurity became necessary as the internet evolved and private information entered the library, Neckar said the security systems were typically naïve, spurring the idea of the “hacker.” But with Spring Labs, the company has created a different type of exchange.

He calls Spring Labs a “decentralized data exchange,” where different companies or entities can share specific data without revealing identities or underlying data.

“It’s a peer-based network rather than an authority-based network,” he said. “Through decentralization, we get back to basically how we are facilitating data exchange … the fewer places data exists, the less likely it is to be breached.”

Neckar does this from a remote office at his home on Big Mountain. After starting to work for Spring Labs in February, he initially flew back and forth to Los Angeles a few times a month, but now all of the employees are completely remote due to the pandemic.

A few years ago, Neckar and his wife bought property in Lakeside after finding Flathead Lake on Google Maps.

“I do this thing where I just go on Google Maps and look around the world and just fly there,” he said. “So we flew out and just got an Airbnb in Lakeside. On day two, my now-wife was on the phone with a real estate agent.”

They moved to Whitefish full-time about a year ago, where they both work remotely. Despite Montana’s reputation for slow broadband and a shortage of fiber-optic internet, Neckar says it exists on Big Mountain and is actually faster than when he lived in Las Gatos, where the connection infrastructure is outdated.

Necker isn’t sure when the Spring Labs employees will return to the Los Angeles office, but he says the pandemic has shifted remote work for technology companies across the country, which he thinks it will be an ongoing trend.

“With COVID, companies have realized if we don’t have to maintain offices anymore, we can save a huge amount of money on infrastructure, so why wouldn’t we?” he said.

“I think the natural place for people to go is resort towns,” he added.

maggie@flatheadbeacon.com

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