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Alumni Spotlight: Power of the Law

Alex Urbelis JD'05: From Hacker to Infosec Lawyer

“As I got older (and possibly wiser), I began to realize that the world is not as black and white as I once thought,” said Alex Urbelis JD'05 recently, continuing, "it is in those gradations of gray that we as lawyers have to work and ply our trade." Alex, Chief Executive Officer of the specialized infosec provider, Black Chambers Inc., and a partner in the Blackstone Law Group, began his career in information security as a hacker.

Starting in the mid-nineties as a fifteen-year-old, harnessing the telephone to facilitate meetings with hackers from around the world, Alex fostered and pursue a steadily growing interest in how technology shapes free speech and public interest.

Alex recently participated in an interview with the Vermont Law School Alumni Office.

Can you give a snapshot of the path you took to get to where you are now?

In the heady days of the mid-nineties I was a hacker. I then put myself through college in New York working in the IT department of the small software company. At Vermont Law I was presented with employment opportunities that I would not have expected to pursue when I was a fifteen-year-old hacker. I worked for the Army JAG, during my 2L year I took a position as a Research Associate in the Technical Analysis Group of Dartmouth’s Institute for Security Technology Studies, and later found myself in the Office of General Counsel at the Central Intelligence Agency as a Graduate Fellow. I continued with federal service as a law clerk to the Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C., then worked as an associate for the Washington office of Steptoe & Johnson. From there, I took a leave of absence for a year after being accepted to read for the BCL degree at New College, Oxford University. After returning to the United States and spending five years in the Steptoe New York office, I took a position as information security counsel with the luxury conglomerate Richemont. In eight months, I was promoted to the position of Chief Compliance Officer and continued in that role in London. Information security, however, was my passion and, along with colleagues from my hacker and associate days, formed two highly-specialized entities that focus information security from both a technical and legal perspective.

What kinds of things were you hacking into as a fifteen-year-old?

Twenty-something years ago when I was a teenager, the Internet as we know it didn't exist. The most expansive global network was the telephone system, and the telephone switches that controlled that system were extremely fascinating. 2600 Magazine, the Hacker Quarterly, has meetings once a month around the world on the first Friday of every month, at which time all the hackers in an area gather and exchange knowledge. In New York, this took place in the lobby of the Citigroup building on 53rd and Lexington, next to a bank of pay phones. I have very fond memories of hackers from around the world calling those pay phones to exchange knowledge, stories, or just to say "what's up?"

Where does your interest in information security, whistle-blowing, and anti-corruption come from?

Being a part of the hacker culture of the mid-'90s in New York City was philosophically formative in many ways. This was a culture that was based on finding and sharing knowledge, and often times obscure knowledge others would not want you to share or understand. It was also about holding accountable large corporations and organizations for their practices.

This mindset was definitely cultivated and had evolved in law school. As I got older (and possibly wiser), I began to realize that the world is not as black and white as I once thought—I worked for wonderful people in the U.S. Army JAG and at CIA OGC. Law school made me understand that the role of a lawyer—be it as counselor, advocate, facilitator, or fixer—could bring positive change from within an organization sometimes more easily than being without.

What was it about the work you did for the Army JAG, the Technical Analysis Group of Dartmouth’s Institute for Security Technology Studies, and the CIA, respectively, that appealed to the hacker in you?

I think being a hacker is more about philosophy than it is about technology: fundamentally it is about constantly learning. Accordingly, it is a mindset of openness that promotes a healthy respect for ideas and the hard work that goes into formulating ideas. I wanted to learn from within rather than without, with the most important lesson being that I came to understand the world is not nearly as black and white as I supposed it to be when I was fifteen. It is in those gradations of gray that we as lawyers have to work and ply our trade.

How did studying at Oxford affect your work when you returned to the Steptoe office?

The work at Oxford forced me to take a larger view of legal policy and philosophy into account, and this was enormously helpful in my work at Steptoe. Two cases come to mind: (1) we represented U.S. service members and civilians tortured by Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi intelligence services during the first Gulf War before the U.S. Supreme Court where we were opposing both the Republic of Iraq and the United States who both wanted to extinguish our claims to compensation; and (2) a pro bono matter that I argued before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals opposing the U.S. Government's decision to deport our client to Nigeria where he would face near-certain torture. Both of these matters required thinking, briefing, and arguing that went beyond the black-letter law itself.

Was there a particular professor or course that stands out as especially memorable or influential during your time at VLS that directly affects the work you’re doing now?

There were several favorites: Brooks, Kujovich, and Kreiling all stand out as great thinkers, teachers, and mentors in many ways. But Professor Dycus did something so simple and meaningful every day that really stuck with me over the years: he began each class with a poem. This reminded me (and all of us in his classes, be it property or national security law) that no matter how busy or important you think you are, there is no excuse for leading a life that is unexamined.

Any additional thoughts?

I think that Professors Eicke and Goodenough are doing really innovative things that engage the tech community and which bring the idealism and ethics of that community to the law school classroom. I think great things will come of that.

Do you see your own (current) work engaged in that kind of "idealism, ethics and innovation?"

We are very lucky to work with extraordinary minds from the tech community who share the same principles and ideals and this is what, in part, makes us attractive as a security company and a law firm. For instance, I recently had the opportunity to address in the San Francisco Chronicle and Risky Business podcast an ex parte injunction from a German court that prevented a researcher at an information security conference in London from discussing security vulnerabilities within FireEye's products. As an infosec lawyer, it is important to be aware of the history of the information security community and the ideals they hold sacred to understand why this was viewed as a misuse of legal process to stifle criticism and debate.

Alex Urbelis

Alex Urbelis JD'05

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