A few years ago I discovered my very own cybersecurity hero when I wrote a story highlighting a dozen amazing women of cybersecurity. While each of them was impressive in her own right, one who has stuck in my memory as a woman worthy of admiration is Alex (Kassirer) Kobray.
After Alex explained the process of scouring the dark web for terrorist threats, I wondered how she sleeps at night. In her day-to-day work, she is charged with both monitoring and embedding herself into the darkest areas of the web—yes, those places where criminals and jihadists lurk. So, when I decided to launch the Humans as Heroes blog series, I knew I needed to reconnect with Alex.
Since I last spoke with her in 2017, Alex’s counterterrorism team has expanded to include physical security and even beyond that to include threats writ-large in misinformation campaigns. “One of the biggest successes is when we are able to identify and stop violent and hateful rhetoric and threats coming from malicious actors online,” she explained.
Not surprisingly, Alex and her team have seen a lot of violent rhetoric, but she talked about one militant white supremacist individual who was particularly hateful and concerning. Her team had been monitoring this individual online as the person was spewing lots of hateful rhetoric. What started as general hate comments began to include images and then morphed into the person acting in the real world.
The process of uncovering these types of behaviors can be and often is repeated with other threat actors. It starts when a member of her team sees a threat actor online, whether it be on open social media or some of the more niche outer corners of the Internet.
“We were watching this individual operate across a bunch of different accounts and watched them progressively get more extreme,” she explained. One example Alex gave was that the individual had made an antisemitic bumper sticker of sorts using a cartoon character to represent a Jewish person. Ultimately, her team worked with one of their social media clients—a large client that she says has become a true partner for her team.
“We worked with the client to notify law enforcement and that individual was ultimately arrested,” she said.
Alex credited a seasoned intel analyst on her team for uncovering the activity. This individual went from being hateful online to acting in the real world. The person had started posting stickers throughout the community. How did they know? Well, “His OpSec was subpar, I would say. He was posting it himself and bragging about it, and we were able to exploit that.”
Her team was able to examine the posted images for anything that gleaned details about the person’s physical setting. “At one point, they put one of these stickers on a trash can, which helped us understand approximately where they might be.”
The malicious actor’s activity culminated in posting edited photos indicating they had a desire to commit an act of violence within a house of worship—an act that never came to fruition thanks to the work of the physical security and counterterrorism team at Flashpoint.
What’s important to remember about the heroes who do this kind of work is that it’s impossible to unsee what they discover, and the dark web can often expose the ugliest parts of human nature. That’s where the team becomes critical not only to the professional but also personal success of human heroes, like Alex, who dedicate their lives to taking down cybercriminals.