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Ex-Winnipeg man gets rich saving Net

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BACK in 1996, a Winnipeg computer company touted it had the world's best security system for the Internet and offered a $50,000 prize for anyone who could break into it.

Oliver Friedrichs, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at the U of M, saw a little item in the Free Press about the challenge and it turned out to be a piece of cake. He cracked the code in less than a day.

But the company -- a long since defunct entity called World Star Holdings Ltd, -- balked at paying out the prize.

Friedrichs did it again the next day but the company had enough excuses to thwart the young whiz kid's efforts to claim the prize.

No worries.

Friedrich went on over the next 17 years to use his expertise and enjoyment at creating cybersecurity scenarios and fixes to start and sell three cybersecurity companies for a total of more than $120 million.

He's now one of the leading experts in the field and a senior vice-president at another company that just sold for $2.7 billion.

In 2011, the ex-Winnipegger was named one of the top 40 under 40 rising stars in the Silicon Valley -- the place that probably has more smart people per capita than anywhere else in the world -- by the San Jose Business Journal.

Friedrichs has become one of the leading developers of cybersecurity solutions, a field that has grown over the years alongside the growth in Internet use and the global reliance on digital communication.

And Friedrichs was hacking his way onto the Internet at the very beginning, almost from the first days of the digital highway's arrival in Manitoba.

"Back in the early '90s the only Internet connectivity that was available in Manitoba was through the University of Manitoba and typically you had to be student to get on," said Friedrichs from his Silicon Valley office at Sourcefire Inc., which was acquired by Cisco for $2.7 billion in a deal announced last week.

"But if you knew what you were doing you could get on, even if you weren't a student," he said.

His efforts back then, before he was a student, set off some alarm bells resulting in what he recalls as a "very positive" meeting with the RCMP.

"They wanted to know who I was and what I was doing... it was all very innocent and ultimately it led to a job offer," he said.

The job was with the U of M and the local Internet extension called MB Net to help administer the servers and help protect the system from a security standpoint.

Michael Gillespie, a computer techie in the early days and one of the organizers of a free Internet movement in Manitoba in the early '90s, worked with Friedrichs and remained friends with him over the years.

"He was the brightest and hardest-working guy among the 100 or so people who were part of the Freenet," Gillespie said.

Before he was able to graduate from the U of M, another techie from Calgary convinced him to quit school and move to Calgary to start a company called Secure Networks. That was sold to McAfee, the anti-virus company for $25 million in 1998.

Both his parents have passed away and while the only child no longer has family in Winnipeg, he still has friends here.

"I'm in Calgary a few times a year because Sourcefire has a development office there but I'm long overdue for a visit back to Winnipeg," he said.

According to published reports, his companies have been responsible for some of the first early warning systems, the first tool to identify network security vulnerabilities and a number of patents. His products were some of the first to detect some of the nastier worms in the last decade that affected millions of computer networks around the world.

Products he's developed are used by governments and militaries around the world.

"It's an honour to do what we do -- protecting important assets and critical infrastructure by building the products we build," he said.

Luckily, guys like Friedrichs are up for the challenge because by the sounds of it, the need for protection from malicious software or malware is not going to end any time soon.

"The malware problem was growing out of control," he said in reference to the development his last company undertook to launch defences from the cloud. "We were seeing 100,000-plus new variants of malware threats every day."

And it's not like they're going to stop any time soon.

Friedrich said for every barrier and solution that's built, the perpetrators keep coming up with their own innovations.

Despite the constant barrage of attempted disruptions, Friedrich said the diversity of operating systems now in use by desktops, laptops and mobile devices means it's increasingly unlikely the Internet will be broken.

"The topic comes up regularly as to whether the entire Internet can be taken down," he said. "The Internet is very resilient. You could attack certain services that would make the Internet very difficult to use. But for the entire Internet to go down, it's very difficult today."

Phew.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 B6

History

Updated on Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 7:46 AM CDT: adds photo

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