The pandemic has shown us what’s truly possible — even if we’ve been told it was impossible before. There are heroic acts of kindness and generosity happening all around us, and they’re being featured in the news. Politicians are agreeing on things that used to seem impossible for them to agree on — and sometimes in opposition to their previous stands.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cindy Murphy, President at Tetra Defense. Cindy worked in law enforcement for 31 years, starting her career in the US Army as a Military Police officer, then working for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs as a police officer, and joining the Madison Police Department. She began investigating computer-related crimes in 1998 and has become one of the most highly respected experts in the digital forensics field. In 2016, she transitioned to the private sector and founded Gillware Digital Forensics (now Tetra Defense), which provides digital forensics, incident response, and proactive cybersecurity services. In her free time, Cindy plays cello, 4 and 5 string banjo, viola, mandolin, ukulele, tenor guitar, with Hoot’n Annie String band.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I joined the military because I wanted to pay my own way through college, rather than placing that burden on my parents. I chose to be an MP because it seemed to be the most interesting job choice, and I have always liked to help people. Thankfully, it was a calling that really appealed to me once I got into it.
I almost literally fell into Digital Forensics and cybercrime investigation. In 1998 I was in a high-speed chase after an armed robbery where a man with a gun ran from a stolen car after he crashed. I injured myself going over a fence while chasing him, but I did catch him and get him into handcuffs. There was a significant recovery time afterward. While I was on light duty, I caught the digital forensics bug. I worked with a now-retired detective on the first computer forensics case Madison Police Department had. A man was cutting signatures out of historical books at the WI State Historical Library and selling them in newsgroups. Many years later, in 2012, I learned that Eoghan Casey, a founding figure in digital forensics was working the other end of that case in Boston at MIT and he had helped me through my first case. We solved that case using DOS commands on a DD image of the suspect’s computer. It was a new and fascinating set of problems to solve, involving some skills I learned from my Dad when I was young. I put in a training request to go to the NW3C’s Basic Data Recovery and Analysis class and ended up attending in Helena, MT in 1999 with my twin sister. We didn’t plan it that way — she was working in network security for Yellowstone County, MT at the time, and they sent her to the same class.
Several months later I was back on the streets, healed from my injuries, and a new fan of digital forensics when I got into another foot chase and injured my knee. Another trip to the E.R., knee surgery, and another long stretch of PT later, I came out in relatively good shape. I went back on light duty and was assigned to work on a new computer forensics case. I was promoted to detective in 2000 and was assigned to work on computer-related cases when they came in. Over the next several years, cybercrime took over more and more of my caseload, until in 2003 the department created a new position in the detective bureau for Computer Crimes, and I was assigned to work on computer crimes and computer forensics full time.
After building the digital forensics unit at my department and a 30+ year career in law enforcement, I decided to retire from policing but wasn’t done with digital forensics. In 2016, I helped to found Gillware Digital Forensics (now rebranded to Tetra Defense). We have since become a very successful and fast-growing digital forensics, incident response, and cyber risk management company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
We were involved in a civil litigation case involving cyber-espionage and the theft of intellectual property, where a foreign national was hired by a U.S. high-tech company to do research and development work on emerging LED technologies. During his employment, he exfiltrated intellectual property and secrets related to the technology he was working on, and eventually left the company and moved back to his country of origin, China. Shortly after he returned, a whole factory that had previously produced toasters suddenly was refitted to produce LED lighting.
When ordered by the courts to turn over his personal laptop for civil litigation, the ex-employee explained that he had thrown it away upon returning to his home country. The case had been ongoing for quite a while before our involvement. We worked on the examination of a thumb drive that the ex-employee had stashed in a safety deposit box in the states before he returned to his home country. We did a chip off extraction of the data and examined the data below the flash translation layer for traces of previously existing data, as well as examining the firmware on the device. We later repeated a forensic exam of the ex-employee’s work laptop. Explaining to the jury how flash memory works in simple terms and making it understandable to someone without a technical background was a real challenge and was also extremely rewarding. Ultimately, our work in that case helped to achieve a $66 million liability verdict following a civil jury trial.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working on a number of really exciting projects at Tetra Defense currently, and I have my fingers in quite a few of them. The first that comes to mind is our Ransomware Stress Test™. This is a completely free self-assessment that companies can walk through in order to see how susceptible they are to a ransomware attack based on what our incident response team sees firsthand and the best practices championed by our cyber risk management team. I like to think of it as a sort of “proactive policing” approach to ransomware prevention. As you walk through the survey, we provide written and video content about how to increase the security level of your network to harden it against ransomware attacks. Just going through the RST will help organizations to be more secure against ransomware attacks because we provide information and resources about how to harden yourself as a target along the way. We are working with a number of organizations to roll out the Ransomware Stress Test™ to their respective members and clients, but it is available to anyone who wants to be better informed and who wants to proactively reduce their risk.
Another exciting thing we’re working on is our Beacon™ project. We are building a tool to help businesses digest and implement different information security frameworks. Similar to RST, we are placing an emphasis on clear explanations and recommendations so businesses can implement effective solutions and procedures in order to comply with their respective requirements. A great example of how Beacon™ can be used by businesses is CMMC. The Department of Defense has recently released its Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC), which is the standard framework they will be using to assess the cybersecurity environment of their contracted businesses. The development of this requirement is directly related to the DoD’s vested interest in defending the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of their contracted partners. CMMC Level Requirements will be listed on DoD contract Requests for Information (RFIs) beginning in June 2020, and so far, the requirements haven’t been delayed by COVID-19. We’re hoping to help companies who are scrambling to figure the CMMC requirements out to get through that process as painlessly and inexpensively as possible.
Otherwise, there are always interesting projects going on and no day is ever the same. Between ransomware response and investigation, forensics and civil litigation cases, and proactive services, no day at Tetra is ever mundane or boring.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That is so true. Any individual’s success is really a team effort. In my case, there are many colleagues and mentors who helped me along the way, but I am most grateful to my Dad who passed away in 2011. As the father of three girls, he worked very hard to teach us the skills and knowledge we would need not just to succeed, but to thrive. He understood that there would be additional obstacles and challenges for us as young women and instilled in us the understanding that with perseverance and problem solving, we could overcome anything. As a scientist, he taught us about the scientific method, and he taught us to be lifetime learners. He had the foresight to understand how important computers and technology would become, and in a time (the 1970s and 1980s) when they weren’t very prevalent, he made sure we were comfortable and confident in using them. Not only did he emphasize the importance of technology, but he also emphasized the importance of creativity, art, literature, and the natural world and of becoming kind, empathetic, and independent.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. We would like to learn how you have pivoted to tackle these challenges. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The pandemic has certainly thrown a loop in to everyone’s family routines. My mother is in an assisted living facility, and I used to visit her nearly every day. She is 80+ years old and has dementia, but thankfully is still very present in the here and now — it just doesn’t stick very well these days.
In mid to late March when it became apparent to me that visitor restrictions would likely be forthcoming, I started to have candid conversations with her each day about COVID-19 and like what happened with the flu pandemic of 1918, people’s daily lives would need to change to minimize the overall damage of the pandemic. I previously installed two video cameras and an Alexa in Mom’s room so that I could drop in on her and talk at any time, and we began to practice using those so that she would be more comfortable with talking to them instead of directly to me. I also wrote her a note in permanent ink on a whiteboard explaining why I wouldn’t be visiting as often. It’s been really difficult not to be able to go visit my Mom in person, especially because she had a pretty bad fall several days after the total lockdown happened. Thankfully she wasn’t hurt badly.
It has been a godsend to have that technology in her room. For one thing, I was able to review the video footage of the fall and let staff know exactly what happened. But mostly, being able to drop in on her and have video visits over Alexa has given me peace of mind and a tangible connection to my Mom that many families can’t have right now. I’ve been able to play music and sing for her and reinforce to her how many people are thinking of her and care about her.
*By the way, for anyone in a similar situation, you can have an Alexa (or similar devices) delivered right to a care facility and it can be set up almost entirely remotely, so long as you have someone in the facility who can plug it in and connect it to Wi-Fi. I know because I helped a friend set one up in her Dad’s room in his long-term care facility.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
Our headquarters in Madison, WI is a fun place to be — there is always an interesting investigation to learn about, fun projects to contribute to, and entertaining banter amongst our team. With that, adjusting to a work from home environment and schedule has been quite a challenge for me, and for many on our team. It’s also been a challenge for my dogs.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Because my mother is in a high-risk category for Covid-19 and because I was still visiting her, I made the decision to start working primarily from home pretty early on, before the official “Safer at Home” order came out from the State of Wisconsin. I turned my dining room into a dedicated office area and worked with our IT staff as well as our incident response team to make sure that I could get remote access to data I needed while also doing so safely. At Tetra, we have a number of people who work remotely every day, and so I reached out to ask them about their challenges, and how to stay as connected as possible to co-workers and clients. Then I did what I usually do to cope with and process big changes and challenges — I wrote about it. The end result is a blog post about how to stay secure and sane while working from home.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
I am single by choice. I have an adult child, and my Mom is in assisted living. Whether that’s preferable to being in isolation with myself or not, I’m isolated at home alone through this pandemic event. Even though I’m on my own, my family close and far still needs connection and other assistance and advice. I think there are different challenges for people who are in isolation with their families and those of us who are weathering this storm on our own — loneliness and stir craziness being chief among mine. And my dogs… they seem to have more needs since I’ve been at home. Guinness, my male Brittany Spaniel thinks he should be in my lap for every Zoom meeting, and every time I stand up to take a break, the dogs think it’s time to go outside.
To balance those needs with my own, I’ve tried to keep my scheduled work hours and my workspace separate from personal time to the extent I am able. This isn’t always possible, but it does help to minimize distractions when I’m working and helps me focus on important conversations with family and friends when I’m not.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
As someone weathering this pandemic storm on my own, I’m really missing actual face-to-face human contact. While I have tendencies toward introversion, I also really love people, and I am really missing face-to-face contact, hugging people, and playing music with my band. To combat the loneliness and stir craziness and to stay sane, I’m working on several creative projects in my spare time. I’m recording music and collaborating with others on recording projects, working on some gardening projects, and I just ordered a chicken coop to start raising chickens and producing eggs in my backyard. I’m also doing a lot of video chatting, whether with my Mom over Alexa, my extended family, band family, friends and coworkers via Google Hangouts, Zoom, Facetime, or other video chat platforms. While seeing peoples’ faces over video chat is nice, a good friend surprised me with a driveway visit yesterday and we chatted for an hour from 10 feet apart. That was such a great surprise!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis:
I don’t want to be glib, nor do I wish to underestimate the colossal impact that the coronavirus pandemic will have in terms of lives and livelihoods lost, nor the very valid anxiety that we all share about its impact on our individual lives and on those we care about and humanity in general. No living person has previously directly experienced any historical event that will impact humanity the way this pandemic will. I also realize that I am speaking from a place of privilege here — that I have the luxury of a roof over my head, food security, a cell phone, computer and internet to communicate with, and a secure job. And I’m no longer on the front lines as a first responder, or like our heroic medical professionals — or even those who are stocking the shelves at the grocery store. Many are not so lucky as I am, and I am truly grateful for those who are in the direct line of fire. That being said, there are reasons to be hopeful.
1. History is on our side. It is not the first time humanity has been through a crisis such as this one.
I recently re-read a book called “The Microbe Hunters” by Paul de Kruif, which was written in 1926. The book tells the stories of past scientists who studied and battled pandemics and illnesses, in a time when far more people died of illness and disease than of heart disease and diabetes. The stories of Leeuwenhoek, Pasteur, Koch, Reed, Ehrlich, and others — of how they discovered and studied the invisible world of microbes including viruses and collaborated and built on each other’s discoveries to find cures for human ailments from bad beer to deadly disease — give me hope. Even given failures in leadership, our scientists and medical professionals are equipped with the knowledge needed to develop effective medications and immunizations for COVID-19. (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/582171.Microbe_Hunters)
2. Humanity is resilient and this pandemic is time-limited. Like the deadly flu of 1918 or previous pandemic events, eventually, the prevalence of infection will subside, and this time of isolation will be in our past and written about in history books. There will be studies about its impact on the way we work and socialize, what populations were hardest hit and why, what leadership responses were effective, and which were not. We will examine and either celebrate or condemn different individual and government responses to the pandemic. We will scrutinize every aspect of this pandemic from our supply chains to our use of cell phone location data to track movements of people into and out of hotspot areas. And we will hopefully learn some lessons from all of that to prevent, mitigate, or better respond to the next pandemic event.
3. There are opportunities for connection, introspection, and creation that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. How many times have we all wished we had more time to read, write, make music, paint, draw, garden, exercise, or just spend some quiet time with our families… or whatever? Well, now we have it, and we should take advantage of it. Relationships will be tested, some ended and some renewed. People will learn the depth and breadth of their own minds, and will certainly create some beautiful art.
4. This is an opportunity to sort out what and who is important to you. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life pre-pandemic, people tended to be on autopilot between their schedules and obligations. Most of our calendars are much clearer. It’s a great time to figure out what you really need to do versus what you want to do and to figure out who is truly there for you and who you choose to be there for. What do you really miss about the way life used to be? What would you rather not do anymore once life goes back to a new normal? This kind of opportunity to examine our own priorities and to readjust is exceedingly rare.
5. The pandemic has shown us what’s truly possible — even if we’ve been told it was impossible before. There are heroic acts of kindness and generosity happening all around us, and they’re being featured in the news. Politicians are agreeing on things that used to seem impossible for them to agree on — and sometimes in opposition to their previous stands. They’ve managed to figure out how to provide paid sick leave and family and medical leave for some workers. They’ve increased funding for Medicaid and unemployment and have passed the largest spending bill ever to help Americans cope. Evictions and foreclosures have been suspended in many areas. It appears that the whole ozone layer is healing because we’re generating significantly fewer greenhouse gases than prior to the pandemic. The Internet has withstood the incredible onslaught of data traffic and has kept at least some of us working. Organizations that never would have considered work from home options in the past have found ways to make it work.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
This is a hard one, because right now who isn’t feeling anxious? We all are, and we all have good reasons for feeling that way. I have a loved one who suffers from mental health issues including anxiety and depression. One thing that they told me helped was for me to say I understood a little of what they were feeling because I was feeling it too. We can listen, be there for them the best we can, and try to give everyone just a little bit more understanding. After all, who doesn’t feel anxious, stir crazy, disconnected, grouchy, nostalgic for pre-pandemic life, or even sometimes guilty for enjoying the time they now have for themselves. It’s a new existence. We’re all in this together trying to figure it out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
~Viktor E. Frankl
In other words, stuff happens. How we respond to it is our choice. The more we take just a little time to process something before reacting to it in an unthinking way, the more we have control over our own destiny and the direction of our lives. It’s the difference between letting life happen TO us and actually living a meaningful, creative, and thoughtful life. That space between stimulus and response — that’s where resilience is born.
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!