Matt Nippert is a business investigations reporter.

Government an online threat to media, says Kiwi e-bodyguard

Morgan Marquis-Boire, a former Auckland goth and hacker, who was appointed head of security for First Look Media in June.
Morgan Marquis-Boire, a former Auckland goth and hacker, who was appointed head of security for First Look Media in June.

A New Zealander appointed as an electronic bodyguard for journalists working with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says governments are an increasing online threat to activists and media.

Six years ago Morgan Marquis-Boire, also known online as "Morgan Mayhem", left Auckland for Zurich and later San Francisco to work for Google.

In June he left the internet search giant to take up the new role as director of security at First Look Media.

First Look employs Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who have been working on millions of secret NSA documents leaked by Snowden.

Marquis-Boire's new role, including what he terms "committing occasional acts of journalism" dissecting notable computer malware, has drawn considerable attention in the tech industry including a prominent profile in Wired.

Last month he contributed to a First Look report on Regin, a complex piece of malware discovered on a range of European Union government computers. Technical commentators have fingered the NSA as the creator of the bug, but Marquis-Boire was more guarded.

"Regin does appear to be the creation of a top-tier actor," he told the New Zealand Herald.

Read more:
Advanced cyberspy tool traced back to 2008
Some in NSA warned of a surveillance backlash

While unwilling to discuss specific threats to First Look, he said his new workplace faced similar issues to other prominent news organisations. "Twenty-one out of the world's twenty-five top news organisations have been targeted by state-sponsored attacks. As a statistic that definitely shows the viability of the press as a target for espionage," he said.

Morgan-Boire said his move overseas, following years working for firms in Wellington and Auckland, was mainly to pursue opportunities that couldn't be found locally.

He said the Google job interview process was exhausting, involving flying offshore for a half-dozen interviews and being asked to solve complex mathematics problems on a blackboard, but found him on the internet company's front line responding to a 2010 hack believed to be backed by the Chinese government.

He said that experience, known as the Aurora episode, made Snowden's revelations of widespread state surveillance of the internet unsurprising.

"What I'm seeing today is confirmation of a lot of suspicions," he said.

Marquis-Boire said concerns over online privacy should be heeded by the public, but not to the extent of "being paranoid to the point of inertia".

"Thinking usefully about privacy and security is actually the first step: What do you want to keep private? And work from there," he says.

Despite attending the University of Auckland, he said his computer skills was mainly self-taught and tertiary study - his parents were both literature professors at the University - was mostly geared towards political science and philosophy.

He is guarded about his private life, extending even to even his youth in Auckland as a prominent goth DJ. He says of his past: "I'd rather keep that private."

He does concede that the nascent 1990s New Zealand hacking community, for him centred about the magazine NZ2600 (the title is a "phone-phreaking in-joke," he says) was "certainly a colourful scene".

He is intentionally vague when asked how "colourful" his own youth was.

"Um, ah," he begins with a long pause, "How about you say 'I learned a lot of things and managed to stay away from getting myself in trouble?'"

Morgan-Boire will make a homecoming of sorts this Thursday when he gives the keynote presentation at Kiwicon at Wellington St James theatre.

The annual electronic security event, in its eighth iteration, has swollen from an small and informal gathering of hackers to include international industry and academic figures and is this year expected to attract more than 1000 attendees.

Presentations include a rare public speech by Paul Ash, the director of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's national cyber policy Office.

Marquis-Boire, who helped found Kiwicon in 2007 said: "The fact it attracts the great and good of the international security scene is a great credit to the organisers, it truly has become a world-class conference."

He looking forward to his returning home, albeit for a visit, but has kept an eye on the relatively sleepy domestic scene from afar.

He's kept a tab on the Kim Dotcom affair and said he recalled his alias "Kimble" from the German hacker scene in the 1990s.

The recent furore over Dotcom's pre-election "Moment of Truth" event, where Prime Minister John Key described Greenwald as Dotcom's "henchman", finally gave Marquis-Boire reason to follow New Zealand affairs in earnest.

"I have to admit I did grab the popcorn at that point," he said. "I thought, finally we're getting some compelling international politics in New Zealand."

- NZ Herald

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