“(HACKING) IS CHANGING FAST, AND IT’S GETTING MORE SOPHISTICATED.”
The crime Jibran Ilyas thwarts may not be as gruesome as the kind on TV crime dramas, but it is scary. Given that hackers can alter data like blood type on hospital records, or the course of national elections, Ilyas insists his work as the youngest managing director at Stroz Friedberg, Aon’s cybersecurity business, can be like “Criminal Minds”—without the bodies. “My job is similar,” says Ilyas, who deploys digital forensics teams to stop major hacks, learning as much as possible about the hackers and their methods to prevent future attacks.
While his clients depend on confidentiality, Ilyas can disclose that he has led responses on many of the hacks recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, including Yahoo’s infamous breaches this year and last.
“When we are dealing with the top breaches in the world, as we do, the level of in-house skill (companies have) is very high,” says Eric Friedberg, co-president of Stroz Friedberg. Ilyas has “run with the best of the best and excelled. When those people keep asking for him, it’s clear that you’ve got a gem on your hands.”
Ilyas honed his forensics skills for an unlikely reason: music. As a computer science student at DePaul University, he bet his dad he could find digital files to replicate the treasured collection of Bollywood cassettes his family had amassed in Pakistan. While he was downloading songs by all his favorite artists, a hack wiped out his work. “I was panicked,” Ilyas says. “I spent a bunch of nights staying up, learning how to do investigations.” And it worked. He got his music collection back and switched his major to network security. “It made me the insomniac I am.”
That single-mindedness comes up a lot with Ilyas—in competing with his high-achieving brother and sister; courting his wife, who, like him, was a president of DePaul’s Pakistani Student Association; and cricket. Ilyas and his teammates played for 10 years before winning their first championship. “It was quite fulfilling,” he says.
He lectures on digital forensics at Northwestern University, is on the leadership committee of Stroz Friedberg’s associate program and speaks at major industry conferences like Defcon and Black Hat. He has also trained U.S. Secret Service on digital forensics and incident response and has helped the agency arrest cybercriminals. “All the information I learn in the trenches, I like to share,” Ilyas says. “(Hacking) is changing fast, and it’s getting more sophisticated. Twenty years ago, it used to be bored engineering students hacking for bragging rights. Now it’s nation states.”