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Internet Security Central To Danny Lewin's Legacy

With the 14th anniversary of 9-11 this week, I'll be focusing on posts about the legacy of Danny Lewin -- Akamai co-founder and casualty of that terrible day. I'll also look at Akamai's crucial role in keeping the Internet afloat that day and in the aftermath, and how it shaped the way we operate today. Let's begin with this post, originally written in June, as I was getting up to speed on Akamai and its history.

Long before coming to work here, I knew Danny Lewin was co-founder of Akamai and that he died Sept. 11, 2001. But that was about all I knew. Then I got a tweet from Ben Rothke, manager of information security at Wyndham Worldwide Corp., suggesting that Lewin's story needed to be retold. Since I was now at Akamai, he said, I was the man to do it.

So I did my homework over the weekend, reading multiple articles about Lewin's legacy. There were all the stories about the man's genius and drive. But two things stuck with me, both regarding the events of Sept. 11, 2001. One was the image of Lewin trying to stop the terrorists from taking over the plane, an act that made him the first death of that terrible day. Then there were the accounts of Akamai employees who knew he was on Flight 11 when it slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center and, knowing the country was under attack, had to decide whether to go home or stay in the office and soldier on. They chose the latter course, which very likely kept the Internet from crashing with the twin towers that day.
In my decade of covering the InfoSec community as a journalist, I've seen many acts of courage -- practitioners donating time and money to individuals in need and coming together repeatedly to thwart attacks and solve many of the network configuration problems that allow the bad guys in. I've met military veterans who put their lives on the line for their country and then pursued careers in InfoSec. I've met people who excel in security despite a lot of personal adversity, medical and otherwise.
It all goes back to a special courage and grit. To me, the story of InfoSec is human to the core, even though we talk a lot about the technology and spend much of our time on that part of it. I've seen some of humanity's worst in the story. But far more often, I've seen the best. Danny Lewin's story captures the latter.
One of my favorite articles is on the WBUR website. The article, "Cambridge Co. Keeps Founder's Spirit Alive After 9/11," describes Lewin's service in Israel's Defense Forces and his studies at MIT. It describes his intensity in getting Akamai off the ground and taking it to new heights. It describes Akamai's troubles following the dot-com bust and how Lewin suffered sleepless nights over the decision of who would have to be laid off. And then it moves to the morning of Sept. 11, and how Lewin was seated in the row behind Mohammed Atta.
"Lewin was sitting one row behind Mohammed Atta and apparently tried to stop the terrorists as they were taking control. Flight attendants who phoned airline officials from the plane reported that Lewin's throat was slashed, probably by another terrorist one row behind him," the article says. The shock Akamai employees felt is described at length. Employees struggled over what to do. They chose to keep working and prove Lewin's belief that the Internet could be an essential tool for communication in a crisis, and that it could withstand something as brutal as that day's terrorist attacks.
In the years since then, the InfoSec team at Akamai has grown steadily. I'm just one of several new hires this month alone. Our days are filled protecting customers from the dregs of cyberspace. We help them through the constant DDoS attacks and give them the tools to defend themselves.
On the first day, nearly an hour of a new employee's orientation is devoted to Akamai's robust and rigorous security procedures. InfoSec's hooks run deep throughout the company, no matter the department's focus. The times demand it.
Given the man Danny Lewin was, I have no doubt this is how he would want it.