The stakes were high this year when Ralph Echemendia began work on the set of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden. The Miami hipster’s job was to fight off daily attacks from malicious hackers. After all, the movie was a biopic about Edward Snowden, perhaps the nation’s most prominent computer systems analyst, whose very name evokes the words “digital privacy.”
But to Echemendia, protecting data for a Hollywood blockbuster was business as usual.
“It was certainly a film with a lot more visibility around it and a lot of controversy around it,” he says. “But I’ve been doing this for 25 years.”
Born in Cuba, Echemendia was raised in Miami in a neighborhood near the airport. His first computer was a Commodore 64, which he and a friend used to master the art of “war dialing.” The computer dials a bunch of random phone numbers to find a modem. That technique eventually led him to the bulletin board system, where he first saw a copy of the “Hacker Manifesto,” a 1986 essay that served as an unofficial guide for budding hackers.
“I never thought that hobby would become a career,” Echemendia says.
After leaving Miami Senior High without graduating, Echemendia took a clerical job with a Miami tech agency that did work for South American companies. The engineers questioned why he started at such a low-level job. He quickly earned a promotion.
“I went from being a secretary to being assistant administrator,” he says. “At that time, it wasn’t even security; it was just system network administration.”
It wasn’t long before Echemendia found a new career teaching would-be hackers to break into computer systems.
“A lot of it is, honestly, like teaching someone music or how to play piano,” he says. “Some people are innately kind of inclined to have an ear.”
Hollywood soon came knocking. When attackers gained access to Twilight: Breaking Dawn in 2011, Echemendia was assigned to the case. That year, he was summoned by Stone as a technical security consultant for the film Savages to make sure its depictions of computer hacking were accurate.
With Snowden, which premieres tonight in Miami, Echemendia’s role was twofold. He again worked with the team’s writers to ensure the script sounded authentic, but he was also in charge of digital security — fighting off hacking attempts from all over the world.
Echemendia’s next project is development of an app marketed to tech neophytes who want to protect their data. “It’ll be a case for what’s inside your phone, not what’s outside,” he says.
Even though he’s hyperaware of the havoc an attacker can wreak, Echemendia says he isn’t paranoid. He believes fear comes from a place of ignorance, not knowledge.
“With a microwave, you stick things into it and you don’t really know how it gets heated up — it just gets heated up,” he says. “Really, for a microwave, you don’t need to know, but this is something we all really do need to know because it’s something that allows you to better control your life.
“People think your digital life doesn’t affect your physical life, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Echemendia emphasizes. “You don’t have to become an expert, but you can become more aware.”