The Newseum & me


Cybersecurity experts and the journalists who report on them often struggle to understand each other. That was the point of a recent event jointly sponsored by the Newseum and the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University. We brought together experts, journalists and students to find points of commonality. The event highlighted some common concerns, which I address in my latest media column


WASHINGTON – They don’t even have the words.IMG_0879.jpg

Cybersecurity stories fill the headlines almost daily: The Equifax breach potentially compromised personal data of more than 140 million Americans — nearly half of us. Yahoo finally acknowledged losing email addresses and passwords for every single customer — about 3 billion accounts. We’re still waiting to find out just how much the Russians hacked into the 2016 general election .

We see such headlines so often that many of us have become numb to the potential risk. Worse, reporters covering these stories don’t always know how to describe the real danger — or how to separate legitimate threats from hyperbole. Too often, they lack the vocabulary, context and experience to converse with technical experts and convey meaningful alerts to the public. Instead, the public hears a wall of noise in which relatively minor events get similar billing to those that really threaten our lives. Read more…

This also turned out to be a great time for our students to take a look at the Newseum exhibits. After the event, we toured the museum’s FBI exhibit on cybersecurity, led by the Newseum Institute’s COO Gene Policinski.


This also turned into an opportunity for David Hickton, the former U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, and me to revisit one of our favorite moments. The Newseum exhibit includes a photo of David and my frontpage story from the Tribune-Review on the day after federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh charged five Chinese military officers with stealing computer secrets.



Getting sources on the record

An old, bearded photo of me hosting Essential Pittsburgh at WESA-FM.

An old (bearded) photo of me hosting Essential Pittsburgh at WESA-FM.

The thing about covering cybersecurity is that some of my best sources never want to be identified. They know just how bad things can get with hackers and so they stay out of the limelight. As they tell me, “You don’t need to name us. Just know we’re here working to keep people safe.”

That’s fine, but it doesn’t fill newspapers (or the Internet, for that matter).

I finally got three top cybersecurity experts in Pittsburgh to sit down with me for interviews. Because the moment was so rare, I told them I would do a story for the Tribune-Review — but I also wanted to know if they would do the interviews on Essential Pittsburgh, the daily talk show on WESA 90.5 FM, Pittsburgh’s NPR station.

A cool shadowy photo of FBI agent Chris Geary. Taken by the Trib's Stephanie Strasburg.

A cool shadowy photo of FBI agent Chris Geary. Taken by the Trib’s Stephanie Strasburg.

They all agreed. First, you can hear two Pittsburgh FBI agents — Mike Christman, assistant special agent in charge of cyber, and Chris Geary, who heads one of two Pittsburgh-based cyber investigations teams. They talk about growing up nearby and how they take threats to Pittsburgh companies as a personal issue.

Later, I interviewed Maria Vello, president emeritus of the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that tracks down black hat hackers — and that keeps such a low profile you’ve probably never heard of them. Maria’s description of the precautions she takes with her own debit card and online persona will freak you out. It did me.

images_0Finally, I talked with Peter Singer, author of a new fiction book (with nonfiction footnotes) about the consequences of a cyber attack on the United States. We figured that interview would round out a solid hour of cyber talk!

Why Pittsburgh?

For the second time in as many weeks, national reporters are asking: Why Pittsburgh? First it was U.S. Attorney Hickton indicting the Chinese military hackers. Now it’s Hickton and the FBI going after Russian criminal hackers.

Why Pittsburgh? The FBI’s top cyber investigator Keith Mularski told me that’s easy: “I just think it goes to the team we have here in Pittsburgh and the resources we have. … We have one of the best teams in the country, if not all of the world.”

Talking with experts who worked this latest case from the inside out, I was able to piece together a story you won’t read anywhere else. It tells about how the nation’s top cyber experts — in Pittsburgh — tracked down hackers all the way back to a Black Sea resort town in Russia.

This map shows the locations of computers in Pennsylvania infected with the Russian malware Gameover Zeus on a single day in May 2013.

This map shows the locations of computers in Pennsylvania infected with the Russian malware Gameover Zeus on a single day in May 2013.

FBI cyber agents in Pittsburgh helped bring down two Russian-based cybercrime schemes that infected more than Continue reading

Pittsburgh Hustle

Courtesy of American Hustle.

Courtesy of American Hustle.

American Hustle never happens without a little Pittsburgh hustle first. The movie that comes out today tells a story inspired by a 1970s super-swindler named Mel Weinberg who ended up working with the FBI to nab members of Congress in a bribery scandal. Investigative journalist Robert William Greene Sr. first told the story in his book The Sting Man. Weinberg ends up working with the feds only after first getting nabbed in Pittsburgh.

The story goes that Weinberg scammed a Pittsburgh real estate guy, Lee Schlag, who needed money to purchase a dairy. Weinberg offered to line up the financing but had no intentions of coming up with a loan. So when Schlag paid for the loan application and never received the money, he turned everything over to the feds.

sting manI talked this week with several of Schlag’s family members. He, unfortunately, died several years ago, never married and had no children. Until I called, the family had no idea about his connection to Weinberg, the book or the movie. The full story appears in today’s Tribune-Review.

I’m loving the book and can’t wait to see the movie. Hat tip to my friend Salena Zito, who often says that all roads lead through Pittsburgh.