Pioneering Threat Intelligence Before It Had a Name

August 12, 2019 • Zane Pokorny

Our guest today is Larci Robertson. She’s a senior manager in cyber threat intelligence at Epsilon, a marketing and advertising firm in Irving, Texas. Larci got started in threat intelligence right after college when she joined the U.S. Navy, back before the term “threat intelligence” had been coined. She eventually left the service and worked with a number of defense contractors, before moving to the private sector as a senior cyber threat analyst at PepsiCo, and ultimately to her current position with Epsilon.

She shares her career journey, her strategies for protecting her organization and managing resources, and her insights from nearly two decades in the threat intelligence business.

This podcast was produced in partnership with the CyberWire.

For those of you who’d prefer to read, here’s the transcript:

This is Recorded Future, inside threat intelligence for cybersecurity.

Dave Bittner:

Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 120 of the Recorded Future podcast. I’m Dave Bittner from the CyberWire.

Our guest today is Larci Robertson. She’s a senior manager in cyber threat intelligence at Epsilon, a marketing and advertising firm in Irving, Texas. Larci Robertson got started in threat intelligence right after college when she joined the U.S. Navy, back before the term “threat intelligence” had even been coined. She eventually left the service and worked with a number of defense contractors before moving to the private sector as a senior threat analyst at PepsiCo and ultimately her current position with Epsilon.

She shares her career journey, her strategies for protecting her organization and managing resources, and her insights from nearly two decades in the threat intelligence business. Stay with us.

Larci Robertson:

Computers weren’t very prevalent in my household. I didn’t have one until I went to college. In high school, in grade school if we’re going back that far, I had a typing class I think in the second grade on electric typewriters. I did enjoy that.

Dave Bittner:

So you were not someone who was intimidated by any electronic stuff. You would dig right in there and get going with that sort of thing.

Larci Robertson:

Yes. Given the opportunity in high school, I did take the computer class. There was only one, and I was excited about it. A lot of people didn’t seem to have an interest in it, but I thought it was a fun class. And then of course in college, having computers every day was a treat and on top of that, I was the one that was in the library. I actually worked in the library, but on my free time, I would hop on a computer and play checkers with my friends.

Dave Bittner:

And what was your major in college?

Larci Robertson:

Actually, my first two years, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I kind of flip-flopped around from marketing to politics, and then eventually, I even did a parks and recreation type role, what they call recreational leadership, before I decided that I needed to stop and figure it out. And I decided to join the Navy instead so I could make a good sound decision on what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Dave Bittner:

That’s an interesting move there as well. Can you walk us through what guided your decision to join the Navy?

Larci Robertson:

I was obviously unsure about what I wanted to do with my degree and which degree to get. I played soccer. I played soccer for two years in college and had a lot of fun, but I really felt lost when it came to pursuing my career. The Navy recruiter’s office was on campus. I had met with them, and I knew someone else that was joining the Navy. And I went and spoke with them, and they obviously were interested in me and wanted me to take some tests to see if they could fit me into a program that they were in desperate need for, which was a nuclear program. I did take the test. It was tough. I passed, but that seemed daunting to me. I said, “What else do you got?”

And I had a few more options, and I ended up in a signals intelligence role, which this is a funny story I can tell, I guess. But my Twitter handle is Larci007, and it comes from when I was getting talked into picking a role. The guy that was my recruiter had no idea what a cryptologic technician collector did. He just knew that they did some super secret stuff and sold it to me as a spy and James Bondish, so it intrigued me of course. I knew he didn’t have any idea. I asked around some other veterans. They were like, “Oh, yeah. They do some secret stuff. I wouldn’t call it James Bond, but I’d definitely say that’s a good route to go.” And that’s how I ended up in the cryptologic role. And that’s where the Larci007 comes from.

Dave Bittner:

So, I mean, you get into the Navy, and did your experience align with your expectations?

Larci Robertson:

Yes and no. It was definitely, I guess, not as hard as I thought it would be, but also hard, so a different type of hard, I guess. Initially, you go through bootcamp, and yes, it’s difficult. I struggled with staying up so much because, well, I was 20 years old and used to partying and sleeping in, and I couldn’t do that, obviously. So that was my struggle. I was in great shape, so the physical part was easy. I’d been in college for two years, so I was still okay with the class setting and absorbing all of the Navy information, learning all the Naval history and all that. And then going to school and getting into the classes there, learning signals intelligence, I found that very fun and challenging, and I fell in love with it. It definitely was something that I had no idea was even an option before joining the Navy.

Dave Bittner:

Now, did you actually spend any time out at sea?

Larci Robertson:

I did. I was aboard two ships out of Norfolk, Virginia, the USS Theodore Roosevelt. It’s an aircraft carrier and also an LHD, the USS Wasp. And I spent about half my career attached to a ship, and we did a few deployments. And I learned a lot. I got to travel the world, and I am a greater person for it. I’m very proud of my Navy career.

Dave Bittner:

Now, one of the things that you experienced in the Navy is you are what’s referred to as a plank owner, part of the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command. What is all that about? Describe to us what goes on with that.

Larci Robertson:

So a plank owner, when you are the first sailor to be aboard or at that unit, in this case, it was a shore command, but typically, you’re a plank owner of a ship, and you get to hold that honor. And it’s highly regarded. The Navy … They do pomp and circumstance with it. You get a giant poster with your name on it and a story, and the captain signs it, and you get to say you’re the plank owner.

So the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command is its new name. It used to be NAVCIRT before they changed the name, and I was actually at NAVCIRT as well. I just didn’t get there on day one, but I was there on day one of the NCDOC, and that was my first role as a cyber threat intelligence analyst, as a signals intelligence analyst, that we call today the CTI in corporate world. I didn’t know at the time that that’s what that was going to turn into, but I sure am glad that I was able to do it.

Dave Bittner:

Now at that time, was that sort of work at the leading edge within the military? Did you have a sense that you were ahead of where, for example, the private sector was?

Larci Robertson:

Yes. I had no idea that corporate America was doing this role, and it was even brand new for the Navy. We actually were the first military branch to stand up an operation center for cyber, and it was at Little Creek. From what I hear now, they’ve moved it because it’s so large, and it’s closer to a joint command now. And they’re moving leaps and bounds compared to what we were in 2005. Today, I’m sure that they’re armed with lots of tools and defenses that we didn’t have back then, but it was definitely challenging, and I learned a lot in my time at the cyber command, and I fell in love with it there. And I’m very glad that I decided to seek it out when I was able to after my husband retired from the army, and we moved back from Korea to Texas.

Dave Bittner:

And so how long were you in the service, and then what prompted your decision to retire?

Larci Robertson:

I was in for 10 years, and my husband was also in the Navy as well. And he actually worked at the cyber command as well. That’s not his thing. He’s more of a tactical kind of guy, and he wanted to do some more manly, get out of your seat kind of thing, and he wasn’t able to do that in the Navy. So he applied for the Army Officer Training Command, and he went to OCS and became an officer, a field artillery officer shooting the big guns. And he enjoyed it a lot. We attempted to have a dual Army-Navy family for a year, and it was just too difficult to get an assignment together. And so I had to request an early separation from the Navy, and I just went back to college and jumped right into corporate America.

Dave Bittner:

Not to mention the annual Army-Navy game. I mean, how do you deal with that?

Larci Robertson:

That’s a tough one. That’s a really tough one because it hurt so badly when Army finally won. I was on an Army post and surrounded by Army. I definitely hid in our apartment that day.

Dave Bittner:

So you leave the Navy, and I suspect that you had plenty of opportunities with your experience to work in the private sector.

Larci Robertson:

I jumped right into the DoD contracting world. So I still had a lot of skills that were needed. And with the Army, I was able to still be around a lot of military positions and things that civilians fill as far as training and doing some system administrative roles. So yeah, I’m really glad that I had that background because it is really hard for spouses of military members to find roles in every location that they go to. And I have definitely a well rounded resume in order to seek and find the roles in every place I’ve been. So I feel very, very lucky for my Navy career and what it set me up for for my future.

Dave Bittner:

Now after the time you spent with some of those defense contractors, you’ve worked with some companies, certainly some names we would recognize.

Larci Robertson:

Yes. You’re going to recognize the defense contractors as well. General Dynamics.

Dave Bittner:

Heard of them.

Larci Robertson:

Booz Allen Hamilton and Raytheon.

Dave Bittner:

All the biggies.

Larci Robertson:

Right, and all very good companies to work for. I feel very lucky that I was able to … They gave me some new skills at each one, so I’m pretty proud of those as well. And then I got to try out the real corporate America, I guess we call it, outside of the military or government, at PepsiCo. And I’m sure you’ve heard of that.

Dave Bittner:

I am familiar with PepsiCo and some of their delicious products for sure. What is that transition like though for you? Is it a different day-to-day? Is it a different level of discipline? What was that culture shift like for you?

Larci Robertson:

That culture shift was really fun for me because I went from being holed up in a building with no windows to a big bright building with a giant Pepsi can in the middle with windows everywhere. So I can literally-

Dave Bittner:

Fully stocked vending machines.

Larci Robertson:

I can definitely say it is like night and day. So I really enjoy the culture. It’s a fun place to work. Not that those others weren’t fun. They are, but you get a different feeling when you walk in. The mission obviously is a little different. We’re protecting our customers as well as our associates within the company. Whereas with the others, the mission was to help protect our country. So it’s a little mind shift for me. I really had to look for that, why am I doing this, and I need that, I guess drive, on what it is that I’m doing. I have a very dedicated self service to committing to a mission. And I did find that with PepsiCo in there are 300,000 employees roughly around the world that are touching our network, and I definitely want to try to keep their jobs intact.

Dave Bittner:

I mean, that really strikes me that with a company that size, a global organization of that size, you really are dealing with a very large scale.

Larci Robertson:

Right, it is very large, and it was somewhat daunting at first. But then when I thought about it before, I was like, “Wait a second. I was dealing with large companies like this, the U.S. Navy. So I think we can handle it.” It was a switch though to wrap my head around the global footprint of PepsiCo.

Dave Bittner:

And today, you are working at Epsilon. Can you give us some sense for what that company does and your role there?

Larci Robertson:

Well, Epsilon is a marketing company. We are very strong in the digital marketing and lots of clients across the globe as well that reach out for our services. And we have a ton of really, really smart, creative marketing teams and developers that they can come to to meet their marketing needs. So we’re definitely known for our email campaigns and different platforms for loyalty programs. So we have a pretty large footprint as well when it comes to the digital marketing. It’s a great company too, just a little different as far as looking at the size of associates versus the size of customers and clients. It’s still very, very large. And I’m very proud to work for Epsilon, and I’m having a lot of fun.

Dave Bittner:

It’s interesting because I suppose in addition to protecting Epsilon itself, you also have a responsibility for all of the brands that Epsilon works with.

Larci Robertson:

Right, absolutely. And we all know that marketing is dealing with a mass amount of data in order to fit the marketing to what people want. We have a slogan, humans over hype. So we’re trying to reach our customers by not just throwing out what has no meaning to them. So that’s where that humans over hype is coming in. I’m seeing it a lot more in different other marketing campaigns of having the humans over the technology, I guess. I saw another marketese, these marketers are super smart, bots don’t buy. So they’re trying to hit that there are people behind this, and we want to put our touch on it to make sure that the customers are getting what it is that they want in front of them.

Dave Bittner:

Now, let’s talk threat intelligence, obviously one of your specialties. What is your take on threat intelligence? What part does it play in an organization’s defensive posture?

Larci Robertson:

It is helpful to get in front of the threats. So if I can warn my leadership of things coming and we can make moves to prepare for new vulnerabilities or threats against our company, I can make suggestions on what we can do next to make sure that we’re not the target of that next campaign and that we are set up to defend ourselves from it.

Dave Bittner:

What advice do you have for folks who might be looking to get into the cybersecurity world? I’m thinking of either someone who’s coming up through college or maybe even someone looking to make a career change.

Larci Robertson:

Oh, I’m working on this now, trying to give some advice to a few people in my community that are looking at different roles. And just know that there are lots of roles that don’t need to be super technical. But definitely if you want to, start taking some security classes and get yourself familiar with computers and networking and even system administration, see how those people do their jobs. And reading, and when it comes to cyber threat intelligence, I would say brush up on your critical analytical thinking skills, and you’ve got to be quick on your feet when you’re reading articles and learning about new vulnerabilities and definitely have to think outside the box when you’re looking at situations and problems to solve.

Dave Bittner:

It also sounds like you would be supportive of people exploring opportunities that might be there in the military.

Larci Robertson:

Oh, absolutely. They will definitely set you up with the top of the line training to get you into this field. And I’m very grateful for the training that I got. Obviously, being that it was new in the Navy, most of my training when I was learning cyber was on-the-job training. So I would sit next to someone, and they would teach me, and I would just go from there and try to figure it out. But I know for a fact, now that I’ve met a few people that have gotten lots of training, that it is setting them up for success. And I would definitely recommend it. Obviously, they have a great training program past the military, so if you do your time and decide that it’s not for you, you’ve got three years of GI Bill to put towards your next career. So I highly recommend it.

Dave Bittner:

Now something I know that you are active in there in Texas is a group called Women in Security and Technology. What can you share with us about them?

Larci Robertson:

Yes, I love this group. It was started by a lovely lady named Tanya Janca, who works for Microsoft, and she said she was inspired when she went to Israel for an event and was able to go to a meetup there with ladies that were working in information security and technology. And they had a meetup where they were encouraging each other and teaching skills and really just being able to network and whine about how it is about women and how we can empower each other to get past those things. We use a different word but probably not podcast appropriate.

Dave Bittner:

Oh, believe me, we’ve had Tanya on the show, and she does not hold back when it comes to language.

Larci Robertson:

She likes to call it our brunch and the other word maybe. But it starts with a B.

Dave Bittner:

Something session.

Larci Robertson:

Yeah, starts with a B.

Dave Bittner:

Okay. Got it. All right. Very good.

Larci Robertson:

So that’s a lot of fun. So she came back and decided she wanted to have this group here and throughout the globe. And we have chapters all over. And I started the first one here in Texas in Dallas, and we also have one in Houston and San Antonio. And I’m just not seeing as many women as I’d like to see. So we’ve decided to have this group and encourage each other. We set up times to say, “Hey, I want to go to the OWASP meetup. Are you interested in going with one of the other ladies in our group?” And we can meet up and go. Sometimes, we put it out for everybody, “Hey, everybody wants to go check out this meetup. Let’s do it at this time.” And that way, we’ll know someone in the crowd, and it makes it a lot more fun. We actually did that last month with the Dallas hackers meetup. And it was a blast, and we learned a lot, and it was definitely a different experience going with a group of ladies rather than being singled out by yourself in that large crowd. It’s been very good so far, and I’m looking forward to where we’re going to go from here because I’m having a lot of fun with it.

Dave Bittner:

What sort of insights have you gained personally by going through the exercise of putting this group together? What sorts of things have you learned?

Larci Robertson:

I’ve learned that lots of men are very supportive of our group and want to help us in any way that we’ll allow them. We do have to tell them, “We really do want to have you help us and support us, but this is kind of for the ladies, and we will invite you whenever it’s time.” But there are some times when we literally would like to talk about things that maybe you guys don’t want to be around for. And I want ladies to have a safe space where they can feel comfortable talking about those things, and we can fill that spot and still include the men when we can.

Dave Bittner:

What are the things that motivate you the most? When you get up in the morning and you’re thinking about the day ahead, what are the things that really get you going, that make you look forward to what’s to come?

Larci Robertson:

What is the next thing, what can I find today. Obviously, I love to research, and I love to seek out things. And occasionally, I stumble upon things, and it’s a great feeling. I’m not a video game player, but if you’re playing a video game and you meet that next level, it gives you a pretty good sense of a high. I find that when I’ve found something new that I can share with my leadership and my SOC analysts and say, “Hey, check this out,” I have a sense of pride in it. It’s fun. It is somewhat like finding a needle in a haystack. I don’t mind it. Occasionally, it gets a little boring if you’re not finding anything but that just means you might need to shift your way of doing things and see what else you can come up with. But I’m a very curious person, and I like getting up and trying new things and learning new things.

Dave Bittner:

Our thanks to Larci Robertson from Epsilon for joining us.

Don’t forget to sign up for the Recorded Future Cyber Daily email, where every day you’ll receive the top results for trending technical indicators that are crossing the web, cyber news, targeted industries, threat actors, exploited vulnerabilities, malware, suspicious IP addresses, and much more. You can find that at recordedfuture.com/intel.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the show and that you’ll subscribe and help spread the word among your colleagues and online. The Recorded Future podcast team includes Coordinating Producer Zane Pokorny, Executive Producer Greg Barrette. The show is produced by the CyberWire, with Editor John Petrik, Executive Producer Peter Kilpe, and I’m Dave Bittner.

Thanks for listening.

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