Talking Tech, Social, and Security with White Canvas Group Founders Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry
Jon Iadonisi is the founder of White Canvas Group and leads the innovation and application of new products and solutions for all clients. He blends over 15 years of diverse experience in computer science, cyber security, and applied creativity into solving tomorrow’s challenges. He is regularly sought by the Department of Defense, various Intelligence agencies, members of the US Congress, industry conventions and popular media outlets to provide expert opinion and briefings on information age unconventional warfare. Prior to joining the private sector, Jon served as a Navy SEAL, where he designed, planned and led various combat operations that integrated innovative technologies and tactics into the operating environment, ultimately creating new capabilities for the Special Operations Community and Central Intelligence Agency. He is a combat-wounded and decorated veteran who earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the US Naval Academy, and M.S. in Homeland Security from San Diego State University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Criminal Justice from the University of New Haven, focusing his research on the emerging field of cyber crime. Jon is a guest lecturer at San Diego State University and Georgetown Law School and is an academic and athletic all-American who participated in the 2000 Olympic Rifle team trials.
Tim Newberry is the co-founder of White Canvas Group and is responsible for day-to-day operations and sustained client engagement. Tim’s 15 years of identifying, developing, and executing projects in areas ranging from computer science to nuclear engineering has helped him hone a process-oriented delivery model that ensures clients’ objectives are met on time and on budget. Prior to joining the private sector, Tim spent eight years as a Naval Submarine Officer and Nuclear Engineer. He has a master’s degree in engineering from Catholic University, and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the U.S. Naval Academy. Tim is currently pursuing a PhD in Criminal Justice from the University of New Haven in Connecticut, with an emphasis on understanding the intersection between cyber technologies and new age media with justice.
John Little: White Canvas has been involved in lot of interesting projects from crowdsourced crisis communications products like GridMeNow, to social media analysis, to your longtime involvement in the hacker conference scene. Can you briefly tell us where White Canvas is devoting most of its energy at the moment and where you see yourselves headed in the next 3-5 years.
Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: John, first, thank you for hosting us in this forum. We’ve been a big fan of yours over the years and actually think we’ve got quite a bit in common with your content pursuits. As you allude to in the question above, we’ve been accused at times of being a bit unfocused and spreading ourselves too thin. We couldn’t disagree more.
Everything we do, day in and day out, now coming to the end of our fifth year, connects. It connects by focusing our efforts at an intersection between technology and people. Behind every social media account, keyboard, and mobile phone is a person. Our expertise is technology development but our focus is to serve people with that technology, with each one of our projects combining elements of design, science, and functional solutions.
Right now, we’re focusing on a handful of projects. We like to describe ourselves as a privatized DARPA (most of your readers will probably understand that analogy), except we like to produce a bit faster and be a bit more practical in solving tomorrow’s problems today. You’ll see GridMeNow spin off into its own company in the coming months as customer growth and demand warrants. 2013 will also see a renewed focus for WCG on the human factor in cyber security and digital operations for private and government customers. Our other significant energy focus will be an elite performance training system for military and law enforcement personnel, customizing systems currently used by professional and Olympic athletes.
Clients contact us regularly seeking other paradigm-shifting solutions, and we’re dedicated to evaluating those potential opportunities for future growth.
John Little: I know you guys were looking at the national security implications of social media, especially web video, well ahead of the Arab Spring. Has the marketplace for these concepts changed completely over the last three years or is it still an uphill battle with some customers?
Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: Both. The Arab Spring undoubtedly caused global shifts in power but more critically, it caused a shift in the perception of what power is and who has it. Social media certainly helped those events transcend local boundaries onto the global stage; and the pressure of that elevated visibility shaped public opinions and corresponding ground action in near real time.
Video social media is the most important form of user-generated content when influencing someone to do something. That journey from being compelled or inspired to do something to taking action on that inspiration happens much quicker with video as opposed to just text, pictures, or audio. Video compels, inspires, incites action. That’s why we focus there, because it is the most potent form of influence, whether you use it for marketing or organizing. Further, the social technologies at play in these cases (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) offer a transformative experience for the user/viewer because they instantly provide context (via comments, likes and shares), and connect users/viewers to wider online audiences via their own social presence. The video footage of the January 25 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt compelled a global audience in seconds. You personally could watch the event unfold via social media virally while other 1.0 organizations usually tasked with monitoring and analyzing these events (e.g. intelligence agencies, news bureaus, etc.) totally missed the boat. And in this case, the compulsion caused by the social video experience resulted in a united narrative promoting a regime change.
It’s still an uphill battle—that’s going to be the case for years, and unfortunately more so within the confines of government. But, we’re getting better at it – after all, the Internet is only about 20 years old.
John Little: It seems like with all the hype around social media and the internet in general that mobile gets overlooked as a driver. Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t be full of compelling real time content from Tahrir Square without the global spread of affordable hardware and networks. It’s really the convergence and ubiquitous nature of these technologies that is creating something special isn’t it?
Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: The quick, simple answer is “absolutely” – I think we’ve heard recently that in many parts of Africa, cell phones and internet connectivity are more prevalent than running water. But the harder-to-measure second and third order effects this creates involve how PEOPLE are changing with this new dynamic. This is where we at White Canvas Group spend most of our time: helping people to navigate this new digital world order. Consider the fact that reliable, real-time information is being delivered via an underground Skype connection in Syria, which is then broadcast by the global news network powerhouses. It’s an inversion of power and influence. Many people don’t buy goods or services based solely on advertisements: they spend money based on peer recommendations or social network validation. These changes are only enabled by the convergence and spread of affordable connectivity. We think we’ll start seeing many more innovative uses of mobile technology in the future as burgeoning youth population bubbles reach critical mass inside the regions you mention and others.
John Little: You have a long history of participation in the hacker community through events such as DEFCON. And lately I’ve seen the two of you discussing cyber security on Fox Business News, CBN News, Government Computer News, C-SPAN and other media outlets. Cyber has been a beltway buzzword for some time now but it seems like, especially in the political arena, the threat is often hyped or mischaracterized, while real vulnerabilities are overlooked. It drives a lot of the information security professionals I know crazy. How can we move beyond the extremes of hype and apathy to implement the kind of broad and sustained effort needed to secure our digital infrastructure?
Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: This transition will be lengthy, and in many ways similar to the societal adjustment towards terrorism post-9/11. Simply put, a broad sustained effort will not be embraced until either a generational change in the political landscape or a 9/11-scale cyber event. Until then, private businesses, institutions and individual American citizens will have to hold their own. We hate to be the bearers of doom and gloom, but the fact that those inside this professional industry are more focused on the context of a word instead of the practical manifestations of that word frankly says quite a lot about how much most people in this community care about it. Towards that end, and in the context of what the “industry” deems cyber security, we’re focused on providing tools, technologies, and perspectives that will help to fill that void; hopefully enabling individuals, companies, and organizations that are taking it seriously the ability and confidence to hold their own.
John Little: I know you guys are always looking forward and you can find opportunity almost anywhere. Are there any anticipated technological/social developments on the near horizon that you’re really excited about?
Jon Iadonisi and Tim Newberry: Unfortunately, innovation is a cliched term these days. We really enjoy following the modern day Da Vincis and Edisons. People who aren’t afraid to challenge the norm and risk changing the world. For example: Salvatore Iaconesi, diagnosed with brain cancer who instead of giving up hope, coded his medical records in a structured format, enabling thousands of people to help him successfully find a cure, which he did. Stories like his remind us that computing power, when used as a tool, enables creators a chance to globally impact our world. We’ve got a couple of promising projects we’d like to launch against Leukemia, and perhaps have a chance to impact the world. Until then, all we can do is fearlessly dream, and that begins like all of our projects: on a white canvas.