Washington Post reporter tells Steamboat Springs audience cybersecurity is pressing issue

Scott Franz
Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow talks to a Steamboat Springs audience about cybersecurity Thursday night in this year's second installment of Seminars at Steamboat.
Scott Franz
The balance between preserving privacy and protecting national security was the focus of Robert O’Harrow’s talk Thursday at a Seminars at Steamboat event. O’Harrow is a Washington Post investigative reporter specializing in cybersecurity.The balance between preserving privacy and protecting national security was the focus of Robert O’Harrow’s talk Thursday at a Seminars at Steamboat event. O’Harrow is a Washington Post investigative reporter specializing in cybersecurity.

— Tony Seaver left the Strings Music Pavilion on Thursday night ready to redouble his commitment never to join Facebook.

“I don’t want all of my personal information at risk out there,” the Steamboat Springs resident said after he listened to Washington Post investigative reporter Robert O’Harrow talk to a crowd of hundreds about cybersecurity and how vulnerable governments and everyday Internet users are to cyberattacks.

Seaver’s wife, Emily, described O’Harrow’s talk as “scary and terrific.”

The reporter’s talk was scary because it exposed how easily personal data can be compromised today and terrific because O’Harrow kept the audience entertained and hooked as he took them through a complex and timely subject.

It was during the Q-and-A session at this year’s second installment of Seminars at Steamboat that O’Harrow predicted that there soon will be companies that do nothing but pull data from social media sites like Facebook so other companies could use it to evaluate job applicants.

O’Harrow said the development could spell bad news for a young job seeker who is tagged in photos that show them in such situations as drinking at a high school party.

The reporter’s commentary on Facebook was but a footnote of a much broader and complex seminar speech that touched on everything from Edward Snowden’s recent leaks about surveillance methods used at the National Security Agency to the struggle of the U.S. government to protect its plans for fighter planes and other weapons.

O’Harrow started his talk by explaining some of the intricacies of cyberspace.

In cyberspace, a round trip from Washington, D.C., to Beijing occurs in less time than it takes for a Major League baseball to cross home plate, O’Harrow said.

“Cyberspace is the most complex manmade environment on Earth,” he said. “It expands every moment.”

He cited a CISCO researcher who estimated that there are billions of devices connected today to networks across the globe. Then, he outlined how many of those devices are vulnerable to attack.

He said his research for stories about cybersecurity have found that the nation’s hospitals are the most vulnerable to attack.

Power grids, oil wells and other vital pieces of infrastructure also are plugged into the grid without strong enough security systems.

Even Google was hacked, and its operating system was taken, O’Harrow said.

O’Harrow said that as the country gets more serious about boosting its cybersecurity, it faces an important choice. Citizens can allow the nation’s cybersecurity and surveillance methods to grow unfettered and unchecked, or they can push to strike a balance between necessary surveillance and civil liberties.

He hopes for the latter scenario.

“Everyone in this room has something to contribute,” he said moments before his poll of the audience revealed that almost everyone uses a smartphone and nearly as many have GPS systems in their vehicles.

In the meantime, he also had some advice for audience members who were interested in how they can better protect their data today.

O’Harrow said that to prevent hackers from entering a computer system, it’s important not to click on email links or attachments before verifying they come from someone familiar and trustworthy.

It’s also not ideal to have a password based on the name of your cat.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email

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