Big Data experts tap into lucrative cybersecurity consulting biz

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Many experts who had the job of protecting America after the Sept. 11 terror attacks now have new, higher-paying missions: securing the data that corporations gather on its customers.

Two former Cabinet chiefs — Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff — now list as clients Fortune 500 companies worried about computer vulnerabilities, hoping to avoid the fate of Target, a high-profile victim of a massive data breach last year.

Capitol Hill lawmakers and senior staff involved in privacy and security issues during the past decade have lately taken lucrative jobs as consultants and lobbyists.

One such expert, retired National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander, who served as the head of the agency tainted Edward Snowden’s leaks, established his own firm only a few weeks after leaving his government job.

Big Data is now part of the Washington influence industry revolving door.

POLITICO examined the industry, finding a flood of lobbying on issues of cybersecurity, privacy and other data over the past decade, driven by the Snowden scandal and other significant security breaches many of America’s largest corporations.

Boutique firms and conventional K Street players have entered the emerging market, each with a stable of top people culled from both executive and legislative branches.

Government surveillance critics have condemned the rush for corporate America to embrace the country’s leading security officials, who criticize them for selling their secrets. Nevertheless, these threats are very real — particularly in light of data breaches at Target, Neiman Marcus and Michaels — raising worst-case scenario fears of frozen financial, commercial and retail markets.

Alexander downplays the criticism from Capitol Hill over his direct move to the private sector.

“A doctor who works at Walter Reed who’s a brain surgeon and retires, and he’s a world-class brain surgeon, would you find it acceptable that he could go to the Genome Center in Manhattan and work there?” he told POLITICO.

Those like Alexander, who often worked in obscurity on issues of cyber security, are now offering their “great insights” all over town.

Back in 1999, there was only one company lobbying explicitly on data issues, Senate records show. But by the first quarter of 2014, there were more than 500 companies including data security on their lobbying reports, with more adding issues of cybersecurity and other privacy and consumer protection.

Spending on big data security lobbying is on the rise, despite a Congress gridlocked on issues that consultants are intently pushing, such as sharing essential security information between the private sector and government.

Other firms instituted consulting and public affairs divisions to advise corporate clients on best practices for physical and virtual vulnerability.

Established players on K Street influence say they are engaged on cybersecurity issues going as far back as the Y2K scare, and demand increased after Sept. 11.

As technology takes a larger role in the daily lives of Americans — such as license plate data taken by surveillance cameras while driving down city streets, or swiping a loyalty card at grocers and retailers — private companies recognize the need to spend additional time and money on security.

Businesses need to prepare for the unexpected, such as with the Target breach, stemming from an outside refrigeration, heating and air conditioning contractor in the Pittsburgh area.

Digital and data specialties have sprung up at big, established government relations firms and tiny specialty boutiques in equal measure. POLITICO notes that firms like Alston & Bird, Covington & Burling, Arnold & Porter, Venable and Patton Boggs have brought on some big names in the intellectual property and data security industry — meeting the demand from financial services sector through agriculture and education.

Covington & Burling, a top D.C. law firm, hired Aaron Cooper for a build out of a new data and IP practice last year. Cooper was chief counsel for intellectual property and antitrust law in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Paul Martino left Alston & Bird for the National Retail Federation in July. Martino was partner and co-chair for Alston’s specialty privacy and data security practice. He now focuses on privacy, data security and e-commerce issues for the NRF.

Greg Hill left his role as chief of staff for the House Homeland Security Committee earlier this year to work for Chertoff Group, the consulting house founded by President George W. Bush’s former secretary of Homeland Security.

“We were cyber before cyber was cool,” said Chertoff Group CEO Chad Sweet, himself a former chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security.

Cybersecurity is “one of the most important growth areas of the firm,” Sweet added. He cited a spike of more than 30 percent in that sector during the past year, which included consulting gigs for the National Retail Federation and other commercial customers alarmed by recent data breaches as what transpired at Target.

“It just touched so many people in a very visceral way,” he said. “History will look back at that as the retail sector’s cyber 9/11, if you will.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.