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.