Mr. Conlon’s most recent government post as the Deputy Chief of Integrated Cyber Operations within the Information Assurance Directorate required him to conduct vulnerability assessments and penetration tests on United States government networks. Mr. Conlon was called upon to emulate adversarial cyber-attacks on classified networks and to assess and report known vulnerabilities. He helped to implement incident response protocols for compromised information and designed systems to identify advanced, persistent threats. In short – he identified national risks to classified information and designed ways to secure that information.
However, he was increasingly aware that vulnerability is not relegated to government networks. Last January, Mr. Conlon became CEO and co-founder of Vahna, a cyber security solutions company for private companies and individuals. Vahna offers its clients solutions to reduce their risk of cyber attacks, which range from malicious hacking to intellectual property theft.
Mr. Conlon estimates that cyber attacks cost companies and individuals $388 billion annually. These costs come from the estimated values of insured intellectual property, patents, sensitive information, and the destruction and repair of hardware.
“Reports of foreign and domestic attacks on information systems are persistent,” said Mr. Conlon. “Any information which has value can become a target of cyber attack. Industries which have recently come under attack include military contractors, government contractors, the energy industry, the financial sector, satellite communications, aerospace technology, media, and news organizations. But, particularly any developing company in the information technology industry can assume it is a target.
“Medium to small companies – companies with 10-100 employees – particularly startups, are also vulnerable. They are often just getting on their feet financially, and aren’t investing in information security. They are trying to save costs, which is understandable. But, by doing so, they might neglect security systems and leave themselves vulnerable to cyber attacks,” Mr. Conlon explained.
Seeing the growing need for cyber security, particularly in the private sector, Mr. Conlon recognized the opportunity to start his own business. Over a year-long period, Mr. Conlon developed a business plan, raised capital, recruited employees, and pitched his idea to his first clients.
“We had a stealth launch,” said Mr. Conlon. “In the first year, we catered our services to a small group of clients with boutique operations. As of January, 2013 things are really beginning to expand.”
The team at Vahna is an assembly of elite cyber security specialists whose skills at one time or another have been utilized by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Special Operations Command, the Department of Defense, and the White House. With these specialists, Vahna is able to offer a range of services to protect its clients’ most vital information.
“Patterns in vulnerability emerge within industries. We keep track of trends in cyber attacks. Based on categorical evidence, we tailor solutions for our clients that are appropriate for their threat environment. These solutions are based on a comprehensive assessment of their individual vulnerabilities. The greatest vulnerability though, is when a company operates under the assumption that no one would be interested in their information,” said Mr. Conlon.
Mr. Conlon’s own vulnerabilities as an emerging business owner were heavily considered when he stepped away from the NSA to build Vahna. But for an expert in risk, he navigated the transition keenly.
“Talk to as many people as you can,” he advises all budding entrepreneurs. “I relied on colleagues to discuss my ideas about building my business, in a very general sense. Once I became comfortable with a group of trusted advisors, I asked for mentorship. It is important to be outgoing and aggressive as an entrepreneur, but you have be able to request help when you need it. And when you do ask for help, you need to get the best help that is available to you.”
His networking put him in touch with cyber threat experts, business owners, entrepreneurs, lawyers, colleagues, and fellow alumni. During an alumni gathering in Washington, D.C., Mr. Conlon discussed ideas for Vahna with Gina Mancuso ’04. Both alumni were in the early stages of their own projects, and were able discuss the process of starting something from nothing.
“I think it’s important to maintain contact with skilled people. You never know how they might be able to help you, or how you might be able to help them,” Mr. Conlon said.