New York Times Cybersecurity Reporter: United States Has Few Defenses Against Damaging Hacks

In his opening remarks this morning, Mayor Ted Wheeler hit the bright themes of TechFestNW 2017: success, growth and opportunity. Portland’s tech industry employs 10,500 people, he noted.

During her chat with Arizona State University’s G. Pascal Zachary, New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth painted with much darker colors.

What she described was “FUD,” in the language of the tech world: “fear, uncertainty and doubt.”
What keeps her up at night (it’s the kind of job that would) is the increasing interconnectivity between the United States’ physical infrastructure—from power grids to oil rigs—and the internet.
She’s also troubled by the long-term resistance of political and corporate leaders to investing in defending against cyber attacks.
“There really are adversaries out there that are trying to do us harm, and they’ve decided that cyber is really the way to level the playing field,” Perlroth noted.
Much of the code used in the largest American tech companies continues to be vulnerable to attack, and hackers use highly creative means to find information.
“A lot of the investment in the intelligence agencies has gone into offense,” Perlroth said. “There’s been very little on the defense end.”
Perlroth didn’t hold back in her criticism of the U.S. government.
“What’s really sort of terrifying about this [open market for cyberweaponry] is the U.S. government and our allies were the ones that really catalyzed this market.”
The gaps in cybersecurity have become particularly glaring in the wake of Russian hacks into the Democratic National Committee emails, which she reported.
Perlroth says she’s convinced foreign governments could do worse—including using computer viruses to cause physical disasters, like a train wreck or plane crash.
She offered other examples today of how the Internet of Things connects everyday objects to the web: “cars, baby monitors, bodies, refrigerators.”
Dressed all in black—black shoes, black jacket, black shirt, black jeans—Perlroth riveted a large audience in the Portland Art Museum’s Grand Ballroom during a too-brief, 30-minute discussion liberally leavened with humor and self deprecation.
She took only a moment to completely disarm all listeners.
“I am Nicole Perlroth from the failing New York Times.
Her frank comments continued throughout the talk. Perlroth is currently on leave from the Times, finishing a book tentatively titled “This is How They Tell Me the World Will End.”
Among her admissions and comments, at times disturbing in their implications, but delivered with a sense of humor that at one point had Zachary snorting into his wireless microphone:
  • Perlroth at one point became convinced her TV cable box was “some kind of Chinese spying device.”
  • She often reverts to the most old-fashioned of security techniques: leaving all devices at home—particularly during regular dim sum meetings with a source.
  • Her current job can be “really depressing, it’s very depressing.” She joked that she was looking forward to coasting as a “home and garden” reporter for the Times, but then they “shut that [section] down.”
  • Perlroth felt like she was the “least technically qualified” for her current job, until editors told her they couldn’t understand what other interviewees were talking about.
  • In her first story for the Times, she “made a really amateur move” by not calling Goldman Sachs in a story about a hacker who showed her how easy it was to access the investment banking company’s boardroom via video technology exposures.
Perlroth is encouraged by recent initiatives such as Google offering a bounty for anyone who can point out serious vulnerabilities in their code, and Facebook beginning to identify “fake news” stories to users in its timeline.

In March 2017 I covered TechFestNW and PitchFestNW for its newspaper sponsor, Willamette Week. Read the rest of the story here: Willamette Week.

The Best Startup Pitch in Town? A Portland-Based Company That Soothes the Symptoms of Menopause

Holly Rockweiler (center left) accepts the Pitchfest prize on March 24, 2017. (Thomas Teal)
The winner of PitchFestNW 2017 is Madorra, a Portland-based startup that uses ultrasound to ease vaginal dryness during menopause.
Madorra was selected from 74 startups who pitched their high-tech wares before a panel of investors Thursday and Friday at the Portland Art Museum. Those 74 were selected from a high-water mark of around 400 applications for the fest, which began in 2012.
“It’s really exciting to have won,” said Holly Rockweiler, founder and CEO of Madorra, which uses a handheld ultrasound device to relieve post-menopausal vaginal dryness—which she says affects 32 million U.S. women.
“It’s really strong validation,” she says, “that women’s health has been overlooked for a long time.”
Holly Rockweiler (Thacher Schmid).
Madorra moved to Portland from the Bay Area last year, Rockweiler says.
“I’m personally just happy that a medical solution won,” she says, “because a lot of times apps can be sexy, and it’s definitely a longer path to develop a medical product. I know we have something great, so it’s exciting to see other people recognize that.”
During PitchFest, judges completed a scorecard for each five-minute pitch, scored on a scale of one to 10 for four criteria: quality of pitch; viability of business; whether they should advance to the Final 5; and likelihood you would invest in the startup.
The final five finalists—of whom three are based in Portland—were announced Friday afternoon, and then pitched a second time in the museum’s grand ballroom in front of an audience of perhaps 300. They included:
  • Dronze LLC is a next-generation DevOps platform that creates intelligent agents—bots—for teamware Slack. The bots “learn from you, are eager to help and work tirelessly to make your job better.” Based in Portland, its founder is Clay Graham.
  • Sightbox, Inc. “removes the chaos and up-front costs” of getting contact lenses: calling doctors, paying for exams, receiving prescriptions and delivering a one-year supply of lenses. Based in Portland, its founder and CEO is Travis Rush.
  • Mashup Machine applies machine learning and crowd creativity to make “adaptive storyworlds” in virtual and mixed reality environments, allowing users to “choose their own adventure.” Based in Vancouver, B.C., its CTO is Ben Cole.
  • JikoPower’s “Spark” is a thermoelectric generator that captures and converts excess heat from campfires or stoves into electricity to power USB devices and cell phones. Based in Seattle, its Vice President and Cofounder is Marene Wiley.
Arrivedo, PitchFest’s international winner, invites hotels to organize their local recommendations to guests, and provides personalized recommendations, while engaging travel writers to go and pitch directly to hotels. Based in Lima, Peru, its co-founder and CEO is Alonso Franco.

The winner’s prizes included: $1,000 courtesy of Vacasa, and a 5 night stay at one of its national or international properties; $500 from HomeAdvisor; and $120,000 in cloud credits from the IBM Global Entrepreneur program.

Startups Pitch at TechFestNW, Pursuing Innovations to Ease Weed Growing, Divorce and Menopause

Virtual reality demonstration at TechFestNW (Thomas Teal)
The buzzwords at PitchfestNW this year are hardly words—they’re acronyms. MR, AR and VR, as in, mixed, augmented and virtual reality, came up frequently during pitches to a wizened panel of venture capitalists.
Thursday, the first of two Pitchfest days, featured two days of startups pitching proposals and plans and more than its share of bombast, mellifluous superlatives and multiple versions of “reality.”
Limits? What limits? Computers have limits? The Japanese, German, Spanish and Aussie accents heard during tightly-controlled five-minute presentations evidenced only the limits of human language, not the coding wizardry and financial plans.
Nearly 400 companies applied for 74 spots. Themes included health care, cannabis and adult beverages, the aforementioned “MR, AR and VR” and data/metrics.
Anecdotally, the fest felt more diverse than one might have imagined given the tech industry’s much-discussed lack of diversity. In the end, it’s tough to pick between all the great pitches—that’s the panelists’ jobs, and five finalists and winner will be announced tomorrow afternoon.
But there was no denying some of the most memorable pitches were female-centric:
  • Madorra’s founder/CEO Holly Rockweiler took the stage with aplomb to talk about her startup’s innovative ultrasonic-based approach to post-menopausal vaginal dryness.
She looked the all-male panel dead in the eye. “You heard me correctly—I said ‘vaginal,’ here on this stage.”
While Viagra and similar products have received huge investments, Rockweiler noted, the estimated 32 million women who suffer from vaginal dryness—half of post-menopausal women—have few options besides pharmaceutical lubricants.
Madorra offers an “innovative tool” that’s not a vibrator and has two pending patents. Rockweiler notes gynecologists are the target, and cancer patients—for whom some lubricants are a risk—”are our beachhead.”
  • Upstream Research’s Nick Bedbury says his company’s not trying to “draw conclusions” by synthesizing an enormous amount of health, toxin-related and scientific data—rather, it’s providing a much-needed, and previously-lacking Big Picture that “where you live matters.”
The Seattle-based environmental health company met with some 200 health care executives, Bedbury recalled, but their response was not encouraging: “They basically said, ‘please don’t take this public.'”
So the company’s going in a whole different direction: its unique aggregating service brings together toxicity and health data points in a startling way.
Bedbury showed a map of Chicago lead exposure and noted that across the nation there are thousands of areas that have lead exposure on the level of Flint, Michigan. Government, academic and health companies and agencies are the target market.
  • Mashup Machine co-founder Ben Cole says his startup creates “choose your own adventure game” — “next generation entertainment experiences powered by machine learning and crowd creativity.”
In Mashup Machine, which Cole notes was listed by AT&T as a “startup to watch,” users aren’t separated into viewers and creators, Cole says, but are participating in the interactive entertainment product of the future — which Cole believes can succeed through a combination of subscriptions and selling analytics.
“We’re teaching computers the principles of cinematic entertainment,” Cole says.Read the rest of the story here.
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