Hurst describes his role at AT&T as information security and technology transfer. “You can take that in a thousand different directions,” he says, adding that his job is to protect the essential assets of AT&T’s customers and to move technology from the lab and across the AT&T enterprise into the commercial sector.
“Technology isn’t good or evil,” reminds Hurst. But it is pervasive. Hurst considers the smartphone “movement” a game-changing technology that brings with it enhanced productivity, efficiency and another source of security concerns. Then again, what advances don’t come without risk?
Hurst takes a holistic approach to security, and considers an overarching question: What are you protecting, what controls are in place and where are the weak points? If you can identify weaknesses, he explains, you can predict with relative certainty that the bad guys also know they exist and that a future malicious event will most likely exploit those vulnerabilities.
According to Hurst, we’re much better at securing ourselves from past threats and attacks than we are at identifying and thwarting new threats. But how do we protect ourselves against threats we’ve never seen before? “It’s kind of like writing science fiction,” Hurst explains. “You look at what could happen and run scenarios.”
Hurst’s eclectic background has prepared him well to “run scenarios.” He’s studied film, criminal science, helped install his university’s first “Apple” lab, and often uses characters and quotes from science fiction to flesh out ideas. A former professor of Hurst’s once told him he had a “very colorful experiential rainbow.” That professor also introduced Hurst to the teachings of Herbert Marshall McLuhan, a social philosopher of sorts who all but predicted web technology and coined the phrases “the medium is the message” and “global village.” Nearly 50 years ago, McLuhan wrote that print culture would be brought to an end by an “electronic interdependence” that would move humankind toward a collective identity.
Another of Hurst’s influences, Gene Roddenbury, the creator of Star Trek, had his characters talk to their computers (as if!) and transfer information from computer to computer using what amounted to not-yet-invented floppy discs. “The next technology innovation is out there already,” explains Hurst. “The key is to identify it and then convince people to latch onto it or develop towards it.”
Hurst believes AT&T is working diligently to stay “ahead of the wave,” he says. “Not just as a market leader, but as a thought leader.” In its effort to do that, AT&T is adjusting its company culture and is allotting resources in a way that fosters such forward thinking, explains Hurst. He applauds the company’s efforts: “It’s about taking a long term view,” he adds. “Some of these things take five to 10 years to develop, but if the parts are in the place when the technology pops, you’re golden.”