Remembering Howard Schmidt, America’s digital guardian angel

Cybersecurity pioneer advised two presidents, government, private industry, law enforcement

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Howard Schmidt, America’s dig­i­tal guardian angel, had an incred­i­ble life.

He was cyber czar to two presidents—a Repub­li­can and a Demo­c­rat. Before that, he ran secu­ri­ty at Microsoft, and lat­er prac­ti­cal­ly res­cued eBay when it was turn­ing into a cesspool of fraud.

He was a sol­dier, a cop, a genius and a gen­tle­man. He was one of the first law enforce­ment offi­cers in Amer­i­ca to under­stand how com­put­ers could be used to catch crim­i­nals. And he was an in-demand speak­er every­where on the plan­et. (See accom­pa­ny­ing video of ThirdCertainty’s chat with Schmidt at the RSA 2015 cyber­se­cu­ri­ty con­fer­ence in San Francisco.)

But I knew Howard as the guy who always want­ed to help every­one, all the time.

Howard Schmidt

He died March 2, 2017 “in the pres­ence of his wife and four sons … a lov­ing hus­band, father and grand­fa­ther peace­ful­ly passed away fol­low­ing a long bat­tle with can­cer,” accord­ing to a state­ment post­ed on his Face­book page.

I first met Howard Schmidt in the late 1990s when he was the big-deal keynote speak­er at a com­put­er con­fer­ence I attend­ed as a cub reporter. I was a nobody. But good for­tune had us both strand­ed in an air­port when our flights were can­celed, both try­ing to get back to Seattle.

I worked up the courage to talk to him in the wait­ing area about our options for get­ting home. When we end­ed up on the same flight, and he dis­cov­ered I wasn’t trav­el­ing in first class, he stopped me at the gate.

No col­league of mine sits in the back while I sit up front,” he said, a kind­ness so gen­uine I nev­er for­got the tone of voice he used. He upgrad­ed me to first class so we could sit togeth­er. Dur­ing the next three hours, I enjoyed a grad­u­ate-school class in cyber­se­cu­ri­ty as I picked his brain about everything.

A hard job, but some­body had to do it

The most impor­tant thing to know about Howard is that the job of White House cyber czar is awful. All the respon­si­bil­i­ty, none of the pow­er. Herd­ing cats. Pick your cliché. Mak­ing America’s com­put­ers secure is the job of pri­vate indus­try. They own all the hard­ware; they write all the soft­ware; they hire all the best people.

All a gov­ern­ment offi­cial can do is “coor­di­nate.” Cajole. Beg and plead. It sounds like a glam­orous job. In fact, the pay stinks, com­pared to what some­one like Howard could earn in the tech world. And it’s kind of humil­i­at­ing to go around beg­ging com­pa­nies to share what they know about hackers.

But it had to be done. Howard was always doing what had to be done.

Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma greets his new White House Cyber Secu­ri­ty Chief Howard A. Schmidt, on Dec. 17, 2009. Schmidt also served as U.S. cyber czar under Pres­i­dent George W. Bush.
(Offi­cial White House Pho­to by Lawrence Jackson)

Along the way, he always took my calls. He would mes­sage me from halfway around the world and apol­o­gize if it took him 10 hours to get back to me. Some­times, he even dragged me along, as in the case of a bank­ing secu­ri­ty con­fer­ence in Bucharest, Roma­nia, where Howard and I both spoke.

A few years lat­er, I end­ed up get­ting a plum invi­ta­tion to speak in Mal­ta at a sim­i­lar con­fer­ence. Howard nev­er admit­ted it, but I’m vir­tu­al­ly sure he set me up for the gig because it was one of the few times he had to turn some­thing down.

When­ev­er we spoke, I would get tired just hear­ing about Howard’s gru­el­ing trav­el sched­ule. When he final­ly start­ed to slow down, he spent his last years traveling—of course, this time via motorcycle—sometimes to see America’s beau­ty, but most­ly to see his grandchildren.

Ride my bikes as much as pos­si­ble in Mil­wau­kee … our sec­ond home (grand­kids),” he mes­saged me once.

Men­tor and champion

Howard was always inter­est­ed in what I was doing and cheered me on as I had some suc­cess writ­ing books. So it was nat­ur­al that the day he retired from the White House, we chat­ted about doing a book together.

I get approached all the time about doing one,” he said.

Let’s chat some time and see if there isn’t a good fit? Before the months dis­ap­pear,” I plead­ed. It was one of those con­ver­sa­tions we nev­er fin­ished, one of those dream projects that you nev­er get to.

I didn’t know Howard was sick until recent­ly. I reached out to him when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump “almost” signed an exec­u­tive order on cyber­se­cu­ri­ty. If any­one could make sense of it, he could. I mes­saged him on Facebook.

Hi Bob, this is Howard’s wife,” the response came. “Howard is fight­ing a brain tumor and apol­o­gizes for not being able to help.”

I was stunned. But also, not stunned. I could pic­ture Howard lying there, as ill as a human being can be, apol­o­giz­ing because he couldn’t help. Per­haps the words he used sug­gest­ed he meant “help you with your sto­ry.” But I know what he real­ly meant: He felt bad­ly he couldn’t help the country.

Tire­less vigilant

I said I would pray for him and asked if there was any­thing I could do. Then, true to form, he tried once more.

Howard said he will call in a lit­tle while” his wife wrote to me.

He nev­er did call; I fig­ured he’d had a bad day, and I didn’t want to be a pest. I’m so sad it was my last chance. Let me tell you: I am much more sor­ry that Howard was unable to help us this one last time. Heav­en knows we need it.

I’ll con­sole myself with the thought that heaven’s net­works are much more secure now, and the dev­il is no longer spread­ing virus­es up there.

Like all women and men who work in the pro­tec­tion field—computer secu­ri­ty peo­ple, health depart­ment inspec­tors, fire marshals—Howard spent a life­time toil­ing tire­less­ly and invis­i­bly, sav­ing peo­ple from dan­gers they nev­er knew exist­ed. Count­less crush­ing hack­er attacks didn’t hap­pen because of Howard’s work.

He was America’s dig­i­tal guardian angel for many decades. In fact, his work lives on, and you will con­tin­ue to enjoy the pro­tec­tions through poli­cies that Howard cre­at­ed and pushed for years, if not decades.

Now, he’s a real guardian angel. I sus­pect we’ve yet to see his best work.