Okta Presents: The Fighter Pilot
When Vishal Amin found himself on a kill list, identity’s human side became clear
Ask Vishal Amin what it’s like to fly an F-18 fighter jet, and he’ll tell you about being strapped twelve ways into a metal can, with 36,000 pounds of thrust behind him. “It’s all about the decisions you make in the moment,” he says. “Making the right decision the first time every time, because there’s no room for error.”
But as dramatic as those physical elements are, they fade into the background in the face of whatever the mission might be. “Pulling five, six, seven Gs, hanging out upside-down, traveling 600 miles per hour—you don’t really think about that kind of stuff because you’re thinking about what you’re protecting, or what your objective is,” he says.
There was a time when Amin believed that he would spend the rest of his career flying—or at least, consulting for the military on air-centric strategies and operations.
There was a time when Amin believed that he would spend the rest of his career flying—or at least, consulting for the military on air-centric strategies and operations. As an officer in the Marine Corps he saw six deployments—four in the Middle East and others in the North and South Pacific. By early 2015, he was advising dignitaries and heads of state, and influencing national security strategy.
From national security advisor to enemy target
Then, in March of that year, that identity changed radically. “We were driving down the freeway in Los Angeles,” says Amin, “and I got a call from a buddy of mine. He said, ‘Look at what’s going on in the news.’ I looked over at my wife. By that time, she had her phone out and her face was as pale as a ghost.”
She was looking at an ISIS kill list. “There was a picture of me, coming home from a deployment. Under my picture was my name, my address, my phone number, my personal information,” says Amin. “From that day on, my life was never the same.”
That list was made possible by simple mismanagement of Amin’s personal identifiable information, along with that of 99 other military men and women. Someone sent an insecure email. Someone opened a digital door, and that door could never be closed again.
The personal cost of an identity leak
For a year and a half, Amin focused on protecting his family. Their dream home in Carlsbad, California, was now an ISIS target. They moved several times, changed their names, buried their assets in trusts and LLCs, put themselves on an elevated watch list and surrounded themselves with bodyguards.
“All of a sudden, my blinds were always closed. My kids could no longer play outside,” he says. “In the mornings, before I put my family in my car, I walk around it. I make sure things are as they were when I left them. I make sure nothing is touched. I live with my head on a swivel.”
The worst part, initially, was the feeling of powerlessness. “This kill list on March 21st of 2015 was the first of its kind,” says Amin. “It was the first time it was widely distributed on social media. It wasn’t caught in time. It wasn’t scrubbed. When that wildfire began, nobody knew what to do. There was no protocol. There was no fix because once it was out there—it was out there.”
I didn’t realize that digital security had to do with how I lived my life.
“Until that moment,” says Amin, “I never really understood the value of identity. Before I was put on an ISIS kill list, I thought data protection just had to do with protecting classified information. I didn’t realize that digital security had to do with how I lived my life—how it affected my day-to-day. And that’s why it was important.”
Putting the human back in identity management
That realization changed Amin’s life once again. “When I realized how people were managing identity, and how vulnerable they were making themselves … people don’t listen unless they see something dramatic. I realized, to make a difference, I wanted to share my story,” he says.
Today, Amin still advises the military on air-to-ground integration for a few days each month, but he has transitioned into the civilian sector. In his position as a client manager for Dimension Data, a technology integrator, he helps public sector clients shape their technology initiatives. His focus is on the human side of identity management, and bringing common-sense clarity to the conversation.
“I tell people on the technology side, ‘Know what precautions, what layers you’ve put in to protect your identity or your data. Don’t just put something in—be able to optimize it. Know exactly what it does for you, and why it’s important.’
Most clients I work with say, ‘Our data’s protected. We have a firewall or an application that does it.’ But some fail to see the the outcomes of the technologies. They just know that someone sold them something and it’s supposed to work. If you don’t optimize what you have—if you don’t know what you have in front of you, and how to properly leverage it to protect the identities of those you serve—it doesn’t work. At all.”
I worked behind the most physically and digitally secure barriers in the world, and I still ended up on the ISIS kill list.
“My life should be a wake-up call about what can happen from the smallest mismanagement of identity,” says Amin. “I worked behind the most physically and digitally secure barriers in the world, and I still ended up on the ISIS kill list. What does that say about you and your industry, and your company, and how you manage your identity? If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
Taking the risk
Today, Amin does keynote addresses, radio interviews, and client workshops to educate organizations and individuals on the importance of identity management. Everywhere he goes, he tells the story of how he ended up on an ISIS hit list. “It’s no secret that it’s probably not the smartest thing to just go advertise this to a hundred thousand people,” he says. “But if I can make a difference in telling the story the right way, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The risk is tremendous, and Amin’s young family is uppermost in his mind. “I still protect my identity to the fullest,” he explains. “I don’t just disclose where I live, and I live with protection, in a very secure environment, with a lot of support from external agencies.”
Amin and his wife are doing their best to embrace their passions and build a future for their kids. “We still have to live with ourselves every day,” says Amin. “We still have to find a way to make our lives a little more normal and livable.”
They’ve come a long way in the past two years—from locking themselves in their house, to finally being able to open windows at night to let some fresh air in. “It’s been small victories,” says Amin. “For us, only time is going to make it whole again. In the meantime, let’s share how we can prevent this kind of stuff from happening.”