Former HBGary Federal CEO Barr regroups after Anonymous

Barr has a certain respect for the hacking group that caused him to resign

One might think that former HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr would stay far away from anything associated with the hacking group Anonymous, which waged an embarrassing hacking campaign earlier this year that resulted in his resignation.

Barr, who is now director of cybersecurity for a company called Sayres and Associates, dyed his hair blue and mingled with protestors on Wall Street on Sept. 17, an action coordinated by Anonymous, the loose collective known for its cyber -- and increasingly in-person -- protests.

"That's fascinating to me," said Barr, a former Navy cryptologist who worked in intelligence, and spoke to IDG News Service on the sidelines of the RSA conference in London. "I see an immense parallel between what is happening right now and the protest movements of the '60s."

Attending the demonstration might seem like a bold move for Barr, who was the victim of a fierce retribution campaign on part of the group in February. At the time, Barr was CEO of HBGary Federal, a small security company. He had been tracking members of Anonymous and planned to expose members of the group during a talk at the Security B-Sides conference in San Francisco that month.

After a story detailing his intentions appeared in the Financial Times on Feb. 4, Anonymous took aim at Barr. They took over his Twitter account, posting his home address, phone number and Social Security number. They hacked into his email, releasing tens of thousands of messages with sensitive internal company information.

The emails contained details of a company business proposal to discredit the whistle-blowing site Wikileaks, one of Anonymous' prominent causes. The material also contained a proposal to help Bank of America's law firm, Hunton & Williams, discredit Wikileaks ahead of the expected release of secret bank documents.

The exposure of the documents led to severe criticism, on ethical grounds, of HBGary Federal. Barr resigned, saying he wanted to focus on his family and on rebuilding his reputation.

Still, Barr is easygoing and open to talking about his tangle with Anonymous but is limited to what he can say since he is bound by a lifelong non-disclosure agreement. Law enforcement is also still investigating the attacks and Anonymous.

"There is an immense amount of misperception about some of the stuff in my emails," Barr said. "I wish I could get into it but unfortunately I can't."

The brouhaha over HBGary Federal gained widespread traction in the media, and Barr was even the butt of a joke by comedian Stephen Colbert.

Barr said to this day the Colbert piece doesn't "seem real ... all of that seems more like a dream."

He was scheduled to appear on a panel at the Defcon security conference in Las Vegas in August, but was prohibited from doing so at the request of his former employer. The reason, Barr said, is that his employer was afraid it might "stir the hornet's nest and they might attack again."

"I just kind of wanted to rip off the scab, deal with the issue and show people, 'listen this conversation can happen' between me and a group that attacked me," Barr said. "I may not want to drink a beer with them, but we can get through this."

Barr still has strong interests in social media and how that can impact organizations. Companies are at risk from attackers who seek to mine information from social networks, and there is a need for open-source social-media analysis, he said.

In his current job with Sayres and Associates, Barr gives talks about incident response and malware analysis. The company does much work with the U.S. Navy, Barr said. But he still has an active interest in Anonymous, following several Anonymous-related accounts on Twitter.

Barr said he has a "complex" view of Anonymous: While the group has had a positive influence on the events in Egypt and Tunisia, it also has a dark side, such as the actions it took against him and against companies such as Sony. He's more cautious now as a result of the attack.

"I don't really get on IRC anymore," Barr said to laughs from a group of journalists and analysts, referring to the instant messaging system he used to engage Anonymous members.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

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Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
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