It’s not sensationalist to call it cyber warfare. Data breach announcement after data breach announcement sheds light on the cyber crime we know about, but we’re also aware there’s far more happening than is publicised. In this battle are the cyber warriors and the cyber criminals. Our comrades in arms, fighting the good fight, are Tracie and Mike of HackHunter.
Tracie Thompson and Mike Thompson are the cofounders of HackHunter, an IoT sensor network and portable tracking system that alerts you to malicious WiFi networks. There’s a certain appeal to hardware. It’s tangible nature makes it feel more effective; to have something to hold, a physical tool to monitor your network. But it’s more than just gadgetry. It’s a device that offers assurance.
Tracie and Mike are married and have worked alongside each other for 17 years. There’s a logical split that works for both experience and skill set. ‘As CEO and CTO, we both love what we do. We’re immersed more in what we like. We had our challenges initially, but now we’re well aligned’, says Tracie.
Mike is the inventor. He has a penchant for gadgets and their practical applications, from electronics to 3D printing. His 3D designs on ‘thingiverse’ are in the top ten most downloaded worldwide and his home automation solutions are capturing international interest. The goal for Mike has always been to make things streamlined and more efficient, working with existing systems and technology and integrating additional tools to make the system work better as a whole. He’s also a great storyteller. As a CISO, he understood the challenge of prioritisation. As a consultant, he was a chameleon, able to empathise and seeking to solve all problems.
Tracie is the business brain, focusing on the biggest problem in play. She’s a sponge for information, methodologies, and advice; always manoeuvring her way through the different options, taking them onboard and seeking the best way forward. She’s a thorough worker with a strategic mindset, that works not only to balance Mike’s tech focus, but also to maintain the momentum towards the goal. She’s honest and open; a learner; a note taker. She’s caring and determined.
Together they’re quite the duo. They know what it’s like to work at an executive level. They know the importance of product development, of getting buy in, of collaboration. And they’re also steered by a code of ethics; always wanting to approach things in the right way, to give back to the community, to be engaged in conversations, to listen.
Having always been interested in commercialising technologies, once their previous business was sold they consulted in information security (Mike) and business strategy (Tracie) while looking for the next chapter.
‘Mike came up with a lot of ideas, ‘ explains Tracie. ‘We sold the business in May and between May and September there were many options on the table. But idea generation is a hobby if it’s not solving a problem for someone. We want to help people solve problems. To help them protect themselves’.
Ultimately, they knew wifi was the thing. 50% of all internet traffic is predicted to be via WiFi by 2021. But there are clear vulnerabilities and no one had a solution for the wider community.
‘By November 2017, I had a prototype to listen to packets,’ explained Mike. ‘My next step was to optimise the code so I could look at multi packet types. Once I did that, my next step was putting a user interface on it.’
With this prototype, Mike and Tracie started to investigate the market. ‘It was a fun exercise applying a tiny microcontroller to a problem no one could solve’.
The freedom of accelerators
After some exciting conversations in January of 2018, Tracie and Mike started researching the Startmate accelerator program. ‘When we sold the other business we didn’t want to retire, we knew we wanted to have another business. Accelerators were a strategic choice for us. Our old business was built from the ground up. We sold it successfully, but it was hard work to grow organically. This time we wanted to work much faster, and that meant an accelerator. We wanted to speed up the hard learning — an accelerator can help you do this versus doing it on your own’, explained Tracie.
Once HackHunter was in the Startmate accelerator program, there were no constraints. ‘We could do whatever we wanted to do. It was freeing after 15 years of being constrained’, said Tracie. Mike unpacks it further. ‘There was a new set of stressors, but exciting stressors. It was testing our confidence to think big, rather than being hamstrung by the week-to-week grind.’
CyRise was the program they needed to further refine their offering, messaging and use case in an industry which is so niche and particular. ‘Seeing how the industry works in Australia and Israel was incredible. We’ve had amazing mentors who are skilled in hardware development, which has been a huge bonus. We were introduced to almost 30 CISOs (Chief Information Security Officers) throughout the program ‘ says Tracie.
Finally hit the sweet spot
Entering the CyRise program HackHunter was being pitched as a device that tells you when your WiFi is being hacked, wherever you are. The use case being pursued was the traveling exec who needed to work remotely. But it was through conversations in the program, in particular, with the CyRise Entrepreneur in Residence, Ron Moritz, that HackHunter set out to pursue a different use case. Now they’re focusing on malicious wifi networks in organisations with multiple operating locations outside of headquarters. ‘In doing that we hit the sweet spot where the conversations naturally resonate rather than simply having an open discussion’ explains Tracie.
‘We now have three paid Proof of Concepts, with an ASX100-listed company, a Federal Government Department and a Federal Government Agency, all agreed at the first meeting.’
The problem is just as big
With this messaging shift, HackHunter has gone from a generic to a targeted solution. ‘We know of an organisation which has five malicious wifi networks and they can’t find them. There’s a serious problem because people can’t track down the potential threat. Somewhere in there there is something bad, but you can’t physically locate it to shut it down. This is what HackHunter offers them. It’s a bigger demand than we thought’, says Tracie.
‘It’s taking the fight to the cyber criminal. It’s the first time that they should be scared. They can be hunted down. Can’t hide in the carpark anymore.’, says Mike.
Giving hackers and hoodies a bad name
‘The press have given hackers and hoodies a bad name’, says Tracie. It’s important to separate hackers from cyber criminals. ‘The hacking community are an ethically and morally centred group, but get bad press. Like any group, a few bad eggs spoil the lot.’ explains Mike.
Thinking back to their experience at BSides Canberra earlier this year, Tracie speaks of the culture of the community. ‘The hacking community is very supportive. They’re extremely intelligent, curious people who use their skills for good. They’re diverse. They’re supportive of women. They’re using their powers for the community’.
The urgency to care
Complacency is the enemy. It’s about time people took cyber security seriously, and that includes government. Cyber crime has the potential to undermine democracy. Without freaking people out too much, how do we live in a post-identity world where you can’t validate who you are? ‘When you see the world through my eyes, you see the vulnerabilities’, explains Mike. ‘You’ve left the door open, but you feel the odds are low that you’ll be compromised. The truth is someone is looking for open doors every moment of every day. This is the sheer scale of bad guys’.
‘Fear is legitimate, but people don’t know where to start, which in turn creates more fear’, says Tracie.
The desire to democratise security
Their vision is to see HackHunter technology incorporated into all wifi access points and devices, so there’s no option to connect to something malicious. HackHunter will be for IoT devices and wifi security, amalgamating their monitoring.
‘What’s really exciting to me is that I can see we can make a big impact and help people. This means we can do it on a global scale.’, says Tracie.
Mike explains further, ‘We’re making it accessible. As a platform, it has the potential to reach more than just corporates. Perhaps that’s part of our blue sky. It’s going to take time for individuals to understand and adopt this protection for themselves, but that’s our vision.’