Getting Personal: John Bambenek

Getting Personal: John Bambenek

Getting Personal is a Q&A with a local personality. Here, John Bambenek chats about information technology and politics with The News-Gazette's Paul Wood. Bambenek works for Fidelis Cybersecurity, where he performs cypersecurity threat intelligence. The 38-year-old Champaign resident also is the founder of a charity.

What's most exciting to you right now?

To be honest, my field is very exciting right now. For most of the 16 years I've been doing this, cybersecurity was never really on anyone's radar. Now it's in the front of the minds of almost every policy maker and company in the world. I'm running two major investigations with over 100 other people in my group spanning the world and getting the kind of international governmental cooperation that just a few years ago was unthinkable. It's a very exciting time to be in cybersecurity.

You have big travel plans. What are you doing in China? In Prague?

I will be in China at a conference speaking on tracking criminal actors online and hopefully building relationships to help deal with the problems of international investigations. My hope is that at least for the criminal aspects of computer security, we can start working across boundaries (even in countries that don't typically get along with the U.S.) to get more criminal prosecutions for those engaged in fraud.

From there, I'll be going to Prague to meet with others in my field to meet with some partners I already have in Central and Eastern Europe and to hopefully lock down a few more partnership agreements largely for the same purpose in China. Almost every investigation I'm doing involves a dozen or so countries, and despite advances in technology, the best way to get things done is to do it in person.

Do you miss the political blog you used to write? Are you doing much writing now?

I don't really miss blogging, no. In fact, I don't read many political blogs at all these days. I came to a certain point in realizing that if I cared about issues enough, writing about them online didn't accomplish much. If I wanted to get things done, I needed to get involved politically either in office or working with those who are. I think several other local political bloggers have come to the same conclusion. I may write guest columns from time to time if there is an issue I want to highlight, but most of my political work involves talking to policy makers directly at this point. The bulk of my writing at this point is on cybersecurity matters.

How did you get involved in building a school in Tanzania? Why there?

About 10 years ago, I became friends with a Tanzanian priest who was here studying for his Ph.D. He expressed interest in shipping educational and medical supplies back to his diocese, and I thought "this can't be that hard." I set up a charity for the purpose, and we started shipping containers back there. We've been raising money and working on that ever since. We have already built a dormitory for one of the boarding schools a few years ago, and this is the most expansive project to date. For more information, please take a look at thetumainifoundation.org.

Tell us how you came to be a cybersecurity expert.

To be honest, it was quite accidental. I started writing computer programs when |I was around 6 years old. By the time I got to college, I was bored with it but was pretty proficient. Some of the projects I worked on involved cracking encryption and access codes and the like. The Air Force paid for my college, and I earned a degree in astrophysics. However, I injured my knees mountain climbing, which ended the possibility of joining the Air Force after graduation. I fell back into IT with my first major job being with Ernst & Young and eventually becoming a project manager. As some of the research I did in college also focused on computer security issues, I settled into that niche and it's worked out well ever since.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

I have a baby and three other children, so I usually get up when they wake me up. Unfortunately, that's around 6 to 6:30 in the morning because they haven't learned what a civilized hour is yet. Besides making coffee, I start my day skimming headlines around the world and in The News-Gazette.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

I have a fault whenever I accomplish something: My immediate next thought is "what's next?" or "how can I make it bigger?" I'd guess to date, I'd have to say the indictment of (Russian hacker) Evgeniy Bogachev. I was part of that case and ran a team of about 150 people looking into the Cryptolocker (malware) parts of his activity. While he is still at large, even getting an indictment for a major operator has been rare, and I was glad to be part of it.

Where on Earth would you like to go?

Work this year has gotten me to many of the places I've been meaning to go. Earlier this year, I was in Moscow, and that was a blast. Beijing is my next trip, and I'm hopeful that a trip to New Zealand will get locked in this year. I was hoping to get to South America this year, so that's probably at the top of my list.

What's your favorite sports team?

I grew up in an Irish family that migrated from the South Side (of Chicago), which all but requires me to be a White Sox and Bears fan. Throughout my childhood, my family had season tickets for both teams.

What would you order for your last meal?

I'm a simple person when it comes to food. I'm perfectly happy with a good steak.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

My wedding day. My wife is a better gift than I deserve and has given me a wonderful family and home.

What's your best piece of advice?

Figure out what you want to get done and go for it. Don't let the naysayers and detractors distract you from what you are trying to accomplish.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

My first job was delivering newspapers for the Daily Herald in the suburbs. I didn't get paid by the hour but got a portion of the subscription and was responsible for collecting subscription payments. It involved getting up far earlier than I wanted but was one of the few jobs that didn't require a work permit, so I was able to do it in junior high.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

Nope, I have no regrets. I have made my fair share of mistakes and had bad things happen, but I am happy with my life and there is no way to know how things would have ended up if things were different.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

I usually make a list of tasks that need to be accomplished and then take those tasks one at a time until the situation is resolved.

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