Information Security entrepreneur Sebastian Rohr talks to Sue Stockdale about why maintaining the safety of your digital identity is important for ones’ wellbeing.
As well as providing some practical tips on how to manage your digital identity, Sebastian reflects on the stress of being a security executive, why burnout is a common occurrence for many professionals working in this field, and how to bounce back.
Sebastian Rohr is a serial tech entrepreneur in the field of Identity & Access Management, and Information Security. He is also a loving father of a teenage girl and considers himself an “earthling”, despite travelling on a German passport. Aside from his day job in Security, he regularly contributes to Millennium Development Goal (MDG) projects in developing countries such as Ecuador, Jamaica, Myanmar and most recently Pakistan, where he assisted in preparing a digital system for improving the Birth Registration process. An avid lover of nature and the outdoors, Sebastian likes to ride both his bicycle and motorbike and tries to be outside as often as he can to recharge his batteries.
This series is kindly supported by Squadcast –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations.
We have definitely become more traceable, and more trackable with whatever we do online.
The stress level in the Information Security industry is immensely high.
If you already passed your threshold with stress, get professional help.
It’s definitely a motivation to know that there are so many people out there who want your help.
What definitely helps me through through tough times are my three close friends.
Sebastian Rohr transcription
Sue: Welcome to the podcast. Sebastian.
Sebastian: Hi, Sue pleasure to be you.
Sue: I was really excited when I knew I was gonna be speaking to somebody whose background is to do with information security and keeping us safe on the digital environment. And the question that always frustrates me is how do we keep our passwords safe when we haven’t got the capacity to have that memory, to hold all those passwords that we have.
Sebastian: Sue you’re absolutely right. That is something that everybody struggles with, and it’s so annoying and it’s an increasing problem. And I guess that, that I would have 250 to 500 password username combinations that, that I need to remember. To be honest the users should definitely deploy any kind of password management solution. One of the all time favourites, at least here in Germany, in the open source community. You know people always try to avoid paying for stuff that that is about security, it will be Keypath. Keypath is an open source solution. It’s been around quite some time. I’ve seen it in use in corporate environments too, where the organisations actually have provided some sponsoring to the guys who created and maintained the source code. So Keypath, it is or else do get a license for one of those more fancy password savers. I won’t drop any names here, but yeah. Do that, get yourself a password management tool. And let me just go two steps further. I learned quite some time ago, that profiling is a thing and that you should avoid using the same username in all the services that you’re using.
So do not only have your password manager tool select a password for you, which is the easiest to do because it sort of maxes out the security also. Try to have that tool remember the distinct username that you’re using for each services and do not just variety your standard username because well, those technologies that are out there are pretty much able to combine those with a fuzzy filter. So I really recommend if you’re online very much, if you’re using dozens of services, Get yourself a different username for the different services, because somebody will be able to profile you across all those applications. And then you are definitely a target.
Sue: well there’s so many routes we could take from this conversation from what you just said, Sebastian. And it’s making me think about our digital identity. And before we dive into to some of the practicalities or what our listeners might be thinking of in relation to managing their digital identity, I want to know a bit about your identity and what got you interested in this subject in the first.
Sebastian: So I must admit that that I’m sort of a nerdy kid of the nineties before personal computers became the thing to have at home. It was those small home computers, like the Commodore C 64 and the Commodore Amiga. I was one of those pretty white skinned guys I didn’t live in the basement but I didn’t get out much between, let’s say 13 and, 16, 16 and a half. Because I was, really in my room and getting acquainted with the technology. Yes. Playing lots of games, lots of games and swapping them. Yes. I was one of those really, really bad guys doing the sharing. So yeah I’m, pretty much in, in the IT sector since like I was a teen and it sort of stuck. It was a hobby. And then I decided against making that hobby my profession.
I’m actually a trained chemical lab assistant. I received vocational training as a chemical developer with a bio. You probably have heard of Nivea skincare, stuff like that. And also ATESA the German brand. The other adhesive tape manufacturer. And I learned everything around chemistry because I had chemistry in my high school diploma as one of the majors that I had. So I wanted to study chemistry, but after that I finished the vocational training, all my manager said. You know what Sebastian in Germany, you have to have a PhD in chemistry to have some sort of career. And I figured in Germany until you get your diploma, which is sort of now the Master’s, it’s about five years and then another five years to get your PhD. And I figured like now I’m 22. I finished my vocational training another 10 years. Well, I’m 32 before I earn decent money. No, so I didn’t go along with that and stopped that.
Sue: So there you have turned your hobby, then into your career.
Sebastian: I took that let’s say four year break from computer technology between my nineteen and 23rd birthday. But then I sort of got back to it because during my bachelor’s study course, I joined Siemens as a working student as a part-time student and worked in the network services department. I sort of stuck in that business and, I learned everything around internet and networking in the late nineties. So I was definitely a pioneer in that direction. During that time I actually worked in the department that later became the identity management part of the Siemens corporation. They had a product there and I had my first contact was that technology. And it sort of. Well I never got away from that anymore. So I I’d say I’ve been working in it identity management for 25 years now, which is longer than it’s actually called like that. So yeah remembering that sometimes I feel old.
Sue: well, it, it does seem that today more than ever our digital identity and how we manage it is super critical to all our aspects of our lives. And even, critical to the way societies and economies work. I know that Sweden, for example, is leading the way in becoming a cashless society. When our digital identity will be the primary way there, I imagine that people will live their lives from your perspective. What do you see as being, I guess the benefits and also just the potential drawbacks for us moving very much more into that digital space.
Sebastian: So first of all, that’s stuff that, we’ve now experienced for, for the last two and a half years during the pandemic is definitely been a boost to digitalization, digital transformation, especially here in Germany, where I sometimes feel I live in the dark medieval ages. When I compare that to let’s say, Sweden, let’s say Estonia. And, and the other Baltic states, they are light years ahead with, with their Digital services, especially at public services. I am a, digital citizen of Estonia myself. So, so I have a digital ID of Estonia. I can do business in Estonia and I never leave my chair. I’ve never been to Estonia.
But I’d actually be able to, to found a limited or another kind of company rent a business like office there without ever going there, which is quite awesome from my perspective, those are definitely the benefits. The downside of that is we definitely become more traceable, more trackable, whatever we do online can and will be logged by someone be it because we are just subscribing to it and, and being a user of it like Facebook they are definitely one of the organisations with the Meta corporation behind that who actually vacuum in all the information about us and our behaviour online.
And being it, not so easy to actually create different online personas and, and having that reverted back to that one digital identity that we have definitely creates some issues because people with the proper technology and skills out there will be able to. Pull up to the surface stuff that we would definitely rather like to be hidden in the darker parts of the net. Let’s let’s say that. So, yeah. It’s definitely something to think twice about.
Sue: So, even as we’re speaking so far, Sebastian, I’m getting the sense that. It could be quite a stressful industry to work in. And I’m wondering if you would agree with that and yes, if you do agree, how have you managed stress and has it affected you?
Sebastian: So this is, this is a big chance to speak out loud about that. It in itself, but especially information security and it security is a pitch black dark place to go work wise. Well the bright side of it, I’ll never be unemployed. Even if I run down my current company and it goes bankrupt with a snip of a finger, I’ll get a really, really well paid salary job somewhere else. In a matter of days? well, the downside of that is the stress level in that industry is immensely high. There was a Twitter conversation going on just last week where somebody was pondering the question, why everybody in security wants to become. Chief information security officer is CISO, which is quite a nice acronym. Same like CIO, like chief information officer. Most people say ‘career is over’ and well, CISO, ‘career is securely over’ because you’re hitting a dead end there. People burn out in that vertical. Quite quickly. And that’s due to the fact that the work environment there is almost for almost certainly giving you a situation every other week where the candle actually burns from both sides. It’s like all those critical things that, that happen a new exploit, a new vulnerability comes around and then suddenly you, your teammates, your management is all like running around like crazy. Oh, we need to, to find these systems that are vulnerable for that. We need to patch that.
And it’s all super duper critical. And yeah, you are bound to burnout if you do not take care. And unfortunately that is nothing that gets taught at the university or at the college or, or even the school. So I’ve seen many, many people aside from myself being trapped there and, and being stuck in that really cold, dark place and, and not knowing how to get out of that a dark place, it’s it, it’s an immensely stressful job. And if you aren’t really made for that. I don’t recommend going there else. Yeah. Well learn to, to cope with the stress.
Sue: It does sound like a real challenge, Sebastian, and your short comment at the end about learn to cope with the stress. Sounds like very simple advice and yet, sometimes difficult to do. I, I know you have a motorbike and a bicycle. It seems to me that perhaps moving away from the dark place physically is one way that you might manage your stress?
Sebastian: Yeah. So please don’t use your car or your motorcycle in those situations, please, please. Any, anything that has an engine in it? Be it an electrical one or combustion one don’t I always tend to say that the human as such is, has been hunted by tigers, by lions, by whatever. So we, we have that fight or flight thing in ourselves and walking it off is the best recommendation I can give. I suffer from high blood pressure and it’s been times where it was really, really bad, so I could physically feel it that, that there’s something wrong. The only two things that really, really helped me or either get out of the situation, literally drop everything switch off the computer or just leave it there. Get out of the office, get off the building, get into the woods into the field, whatever, where there is sunshine, where there is air, walk it off or run it off in, in the evening or in the morning, whatever the physical. Something that gets you there, that that is the way to do to cope with that else. You will never be able to, to relieve the stress level that that’s been building up in, the job.
Sue: And in terms of having people to talk to or family members, friends around to support you, do you find that that helps.
Sebastian: yes, definitely. And. I would actually say three groups of people. One is actually your peers and your colleagues because they know exactly where you are. So you definitely have something to, to resonate with them. But that is a bit of a problem. And, and I think everybody can see that because it it’s, it’s more of the mirror that, that you’re looking at.
People like your family, your close friends who hopefully , you did not recruit from, from, from work or, or at least some of them talking to them and getting into, an exchange with them is definitely helpful. And finally it’s, it’s something that, that is not normalized enough, getting professional help, actually having a a mentor, a counselor a shrink to talk to is definitely helpful, especially if you already passed that threshold and, and are in that dark cold.
Get that professional help. I got it myself when, when I got my burnout three and a half years ago. And it was for me. As an engineer, it was a rational decision. It was really a rational decision. I need help. You know, I’m a consultant. People come to me to talk about identity, to talk about security, and I’ve always taken that as the proper decision go get professional help. And it helped, I had both, I had both a counselor that I could talk to. And a what’s it called a psychologist, right? So, I had the the benefit of having both to talk to, and one of them actually prescribed me some some medicine to cope with the actual situation, which I was able to get rid of like a year later or so. But yeah. Get a good network of friends to talk to have your family and the most important line there is if you are really in a situation where you’re feeling depressed to call it out, get professional help. I can just not recommend it more than just saying it out here very openly and very loud.
Sue: Hmm. Sounds like wise advice Sebastian. You mentioned earlier that you could get a job within five minutes. If you didn’t have a job today, it’s such an industry that’s in demand. So it strikes me, there has to be something more than just earning money from it. What does, what does motivate you?
Sebastian: yeah. I would definitely be in a position to say, that’s my calling. When I finish an advisory. When, when I finalize a project with a customer and I feel good that I actually made the world a bit better, I took my torch and, and held it into a really dark. Corner and I made all the bugs and everything that’s nasty in there go away. And I’m happy. I have a feeling of accomplishment and I go to bed at night and I just. Feel good. The problem is the next morning, at least two people call me and tell me, Sebastian. I went down to the celler and I found a really, really dark corner. And I want you to help me with that or even better, Sebastian. I went out there and I found all my assets are gone or they are, encrypted or whatever.
So for every client I help two more come in and. But Sebastian, can you help me with that? So yeah. As you said, our profession is in in good demand but yeah, it, it gets a little much every once in a while. Yeah. It’s definitely a motivation to know that there are so many people out there who want your help. They, they don’t only need it. They, they actually want it. And that well if that doesn’t give you a boost in, self confidence and feeling like you are, you are helping someone. I don’t know what, what does it’s, it’s just great. I feel needed every time I, I open up my mailbox because there are so many requests coming in.
Sue: Well, that sounds like a lovely position to be.
Sebastian: Oh, it is.
Sue: I also know that you have done some work in, in some of the developing countries in relation to using your expertise. Tell me about that.
Sebastian: So I’d like to say that my nine to five daylight job is helping, people in the industry or in, Germany, in the DACH region with their security issues, with their identity topics and, provide them with a strategic approach. But whenever I do that, I feel like I’m helping, I don’t know, a zero, 1% of the world population was the stuff that I do.
And that might me sad. When I realized that that I solve really, really tricky problems, but the impact, which is a word that, you know is, is very important for, for both of us, the impact that, that I have, there is on a global scale. Not visible. I do benefit from the feeling that, that I help this and that corporation or that organization to, to do this and that. But will you read about that in the newspaper with somebody write a Wikipedia article about that? Probably not. 12 years ago I had for me a one in a lifetime chance because I was invited to Jamaica for work was in itself great. Because the workshop I was invited to was late January, early February in 2010. And the organization that invited me was the I A D B the Inter-American development bank, which is sort of a funding organization that helps developing countries close the gap to the Western and Eastern developed countries.
And, and one of those was actually help the Jamaican government to come up with a Jamaican national ID scheme and, and provide a national identity for each Jamaican, which was quite the honor for me. and it was just great. It, it was wonderful to go to, one of those countries and, and be welcomed as, as an expert.
And, and I had like 150 government agency officials and, and representatives sitting in a room listening to me about what they could do to improve all the lives of all Jamaicans, be there Jamaicans living in Jamaica, or actually expats being in the us in Europe, whatever, because the, the national ID entitles you to, to so much like starting with a passport and stuff work permits. You can’t get that if you don’t have a national ID. And that was a, a trigger for me. And I have done some of those assignments in the last decade. And I just love going to those countries. I just love helping there because the last one was a trip to Pakistan. One of the largest communities owners is like 270 million citizens right now. The projections say that there’s going to be 350 million Pakistani within the decade. So the growth rate is really, important. And as Pakistan suffers from one of the lowest child registration rates in the world, it is super duper important for them to have a a working scheme so that every child gets registered. Every child gets their birth certificate so that every child gets school education, that they get healthcare and everything. And that was a project I did with uni. And I’m pretty proud that I was able to contribute my share there. And that is definitely impact. That is for me something where I can put my knowledge and my capabilities to work and actually help millions of people where it is really, really necessary.
Sue: I can hear as you’re describing that, the sense of bigger impact that that can bring to Sebastian. Just coming back to one of the things you said earlier, you’ve mentioned a few times about showing the torch in dark places. I’m wondering what brings you into the light. So if we imagine that that dark place is, I will not imagine it is stressful for you. You’re saying there’s a never ending number of bugs down there. that need to be tackled.
Sebastian: And they multiply at, at, at tremendous race. Unfortunately
Sue: So I want to look at the opposite perspective to say, what gives you light? What gives you inspiration or what brings you light? What draws you into the light?
Sebastian: Two things. It’s, it’s definitely my three best friends. We, have a chat group that’s that’s titled the fantastic four. And, and we just love that because we all live like at at least 500 miles apart. So we all come from the same county. Three of us have been raised in the same parish. One was like 20, 30 kilometers away. But when you’re like 30 14, 15, well, 30 kilometers is. Stretch. So we relied on our parents to get transported back and forth, but we’ve been friends for the majority of our lives now I’m closing in on 50. So I can say that, that I’ve these three friends I have had for 35 years and more, we actually celebrated our 25th going on a short cruise by the way, which was quite nice.
And, and those three guys. They are the ones I rely most on it’s just, it’s tremendous. I, I just love how close we are to each other, despite the fact that we rarely see each other face to face, especially in the last two and a half years with, with the pandemic going on, but it’s like you can call them in the dead of the night and they will be there for you.
It’s it’s just what. What definitely helps me through through tough times. And it’s my personal support group. I’d, I’d say, and the other thing that actually gives me joy and makes the sunshine is my daughter. She’s 11 years old and I I’d sing the English saying, or proverb is the apple off my eye. It’s definitely something that I care most. That I have a good bond with my daughter and have lots of activities. I just got back from a father, daughter vacation with her in Spain. And that was just good. We go on father, daughter dates, where we both dress up and I take her out and that’s something that we really love.
And I really love that. The age of 11, she challenges me. So we go climbing together and I’m afraid of heights. I have to admit it. I’m, I’m really not the guy climbing up somewhere and feeling like good. It it’s, it’s really, it gives me the shivers and she’s been going climbing with me for like two, two and a half, three years now. And it’s always a big challenge for. But I actually feel energy boosted and really high on endorphins whenever the two of us master one of those climbing trials. It’s just great. So I definitely get a lot of energy from spending time with my daughter and, and having that bond. This is something I really enjoy most.
Sue: well, just listening to you talk about the people that matter to you, Sebastian. To me it’s, you’re dispelling the myth about geeks being only having their head in computers.
Sebastian: Yeah, so despite the fact that, that I started out this this little session here admitting that that I’m a nerd or a geek. And I spent my early years in my own room playing computer games. I definitely consider myself a people person, which I must admit. In comparison to, to all my colleagues. I’m definitely one of the more outspoken. And let’s say, yeah, well extrovert. Yes, extrovert is definitely a good word for that. And that, that sets me apart from, from the, the typical picture of a nerd because I do know that many of those are good with talking to machines like typing and not so much talking to people. So I definitely have an exception there and I must admit that this is definitely one of the reasons why I am successful in that space.
Sue: Well, I can hear that humor in your voice and that jolly disposition that we’re experiencing on this conversation. Sebastian
Sue: So finally, just thinking a, looking ahead, Sebastian, given that I’m sure pretty much all our listeners will have some sort of digital identity in the world out there given they’re probably listening to a podcast on some sort of technical device, what should be paying attention to, to manage our digital identities from your perspective into the future?
Sebastian: We talked about the personal aspects of that maintaining your own profile and, and securing your passwords and even let’s say diversifying your, your digital ID by using different usernames in, in the different networks. Now let’s take the outside perspective let’s just wrap it around and say most of those. Technologies that we are using are bound to some kind of social networks, the large ones that are out there. While the younger people use different ones than, than we do. But it’s all about connections. We are only small. Pieces of puzzles in there and pay attention whom you connect to the problem we’re facing right now in all those networks is there are so many fake profiles and there are actually. Paid actors out there, state sponsored actors agitating and doing misinformation on behalf of political actors foreign states even large companies and, and trying to influence. Not only you yourself, but a whole population of a nation state or all of the Europeans or all of the us citizens.
That is, well, we have that real war going on in the Ukraine between Ukraine and Russia, but there is a cyber warfare going on and it does. Influence us the professional term for that is sock puppets. There are so many sock puppets out there. Tho those are fake profiles operated by special forces of those nation states that try to convince us that.
The reality is a little different from what we see in our media and I, myself almost fell victim to that a few weeks ago. When one of those profiles pretty well made up tried to establish contact with me and was seeking advice and mentoring because that. Well, you can imagine that it was a really, really well looking Asian young woman who had just assumed the position of an it security, whatnot in a company in Ireland.
And soon she was switching the mode of connection from, from the platform to WhatsApp. And after that, she was trying to extract information from me and that was definitely one of those operatives. And please pay attention to that. Protect yourself, protect your online profile.
Do not just wildly accept any request to connect. Do not click on any links that, that you get sent no matter if it’s via a, a messaging app or a simple SMS or in a network, always double check because it, it only takes one wrong click and you and your computer and your digital identity can be endangered. Just try to double check where that comes from and, and if that is a real person well, if, somebody on a business network connects with you and this person does not have connections in their own organization, that should raise an eyebrow, said that’s odd, like only competitors. Hmm. Probably not a real profile. So it’s about the others take care and, and watch out. If there’s one last recommendation. I, I can give watch out for your friends too for your parents, for the people that are not so such computer with kids. They fall victim to those schemes quite a lot. And yeah, well that, that is a, definitely a, a thing that I care about. Try to protect your community.
Sue: Well, I didn’t almost ask this final question. Sebastian is how can people find out about you? Because I’m not even sure that you want to connect with them?
Sebastian: Yeah. So I’m as I said, I’m nearing 50 of age. So I, I don’t do those really hip new things like TikTok and, and Instagram. I do not feel beautiful enough to have an Instagram account, but people can find me on those. Rather old school networks like Twitter. My Twitter handle is w I underscore I N G Ving, which is a, an abbreviation of the course I took in university, but UFS engineer. So w I underscore I N G and else you can definitely find me through the website of my company, which is umbrella.associates. And well, finally I’m on LinkedIn. You can find me there on LinkedIn slash Sebastian war. Yeah. So try to contact me. I’d be happy.
Sue: Brilliant. Well, it’s been really informative to hear what you have to say about this dark world of digital identity and keeping ourselves safe online Sebastian, and I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. And I think the sense of getting to understand your identity as well as a digital identity has been a very interesting conversation today.
So thank you for your time.
Sebastian: Sue. It’s been a pleasure.
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra
Producer: Sue Stockdale