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Meet The Man Who Hacked His Own Brain.


Neal O’Farrell is one of the longest serving cybersecurity experts on the planet, 40 years and counting. And yet, he was an impostor.

In the early 1980s he bluffed his way into a brand new industry called computer security that he thought had potential, and yet just a few years later, while still in his 20s, he won the first contract to encrypt the ATM network of an entire nation.

Even though he was a dressmaker, not a codemaker.

That led to an opportunity to take on the NSA and develop a European rival for the NSA STU3 secure telephone unit, and later an opportunity to develop the first voice-based biometrics access control system for Britain’s telephone banking system. And while still an imposter.

That’s when he first experienced cyber stress, something that’s been with him ever since, and that nearly cost him his life.

He has since advised more than half a dozen governments, was an advisor to both the FCC Cybersecurity Roundtable and President Barak Obama’s Stock Act panel, and winner of SC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice Award at RSA.

Today he talks and teaches about how cyber stress is both a massive and yet avoidable personal and organizational risk, and an overlooked opportunity to build better people and better security.

Neal was born in Ireland and accidentally fell into the world of cybersecurity more than 40 years ago. Not quite as long as the 50 years he struggled with a variety of mental illnesses, and it was that blend – of hacking skills and the deep and personal understanding of mental and brain health – that brought him to the Brainisphere.

When he’s not teaching about security and stress, he’s working on broader mental and brain health initiatives. Like a program with the UN to help communities around the world become more emotionally and psychologically resilient to growing disasters, crises, and climate change.

Or an initiative with NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where he studied how future smart cities could sync with and support the mental health of residents.

And more recently, the first to train students in a cybersecurity degree course (Northern Kentucky University) how to view stress as both a personal and organizational risk they need to plan for. The first presentation he delivered about the importance of psyber resilience and hacking stress, in 2020, was attended by more than 1,000 people in 52 countries.

He’s currently leading the Brainisphere, his most ambitious program yet, and how the fundamental pillars of brain health can be harnessed by teens to give them the best chance at the best life.

A Dressmaker, Not a Codemaker

Neal has never written a line of code in his life. Instead, he studied marketing in his home town of Dublin, Ireland so he could be the third generation to take over a hundred-year-old family fashion business whose clients included a who’s who of the world’s rich and famous – from Coco Chanel and Yves St Laurent to the Duchess of Westminster and the Queen of Siam.

His fallback plan was filmmaking. His Grand Uncle, author Michael Farrell, made Maureen O’Hara’s first movie, when she was just 14 years old. His cousin Michelle Dockery played Lady Mary Crawley on the hit TV series Downton Abbey.

A Humphrey Bogart fan from when he was a young teenager, when he was seventeen Neal ran away from home, hitchhiked his way through Europe and Morocco, and ended up in Casablanca.

Neal got hooked on security in 1980 when a college friend showed him how a simple floppy disk could be used to steal passwords. In 1989 he started the Intrepid project, a government supported program to develop a European rival for the NSA’s Secure Telephone System (STU3), considered the world’s most secure, secure telephone system. The result of the project was the launch of Milcode, widely considered the most secure secure telephone of its time. That project brought Neal into direct conflict with the NSA and that story is chronicled in his upcoming book The Man from Intrepid.

Over his 40-year career Neal has worked with governments, the intelligence community, the financial community, Fortune 500 companies, thousands of small businesses and millions of end users and consumers.

Neal started his career in security protecting European banks and governments from the first generation of hackers, including winning the first ever contract to encrypt Ireland’s entire national ATM network in 1988. He was also a member of the first Federal Communications Commission’s Cybersecurity Roundtable, where he helped develop one of the first online security planning tools for small firms.

He was the only security expert invited to advise the Congressionally-mandated Stock Act panel in 2013, empaneled to study the security and privacy implications of greater financial transparency by members of Congress and senior federal employees.

As part of that study, over a period of six months Neal participated in in-depth interviews on national security and privacy issues with nearly sixty organizations including the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, the Office of National Counterintelligence, Office of the White House General Counsel, SEC, FTC, FBI and nearly twenty other executive branch agencies.

He was one of the first to lead the fight against identity theft and launched the Identity Theft Council, an award-winning non-profit that has assisted thousands of victims of identity theft. Through his work with the Council, Neal has helped set new standards in the way victims of identity theft are treated and supported, and in how law enforcement is trained.

In 2011 the Council was honored with the 2011 Editors Choice Award from SC Magazine, one of the cyber security industry’s most prestigious awards. Previous winners include the NSA and SANS. And in 2015 he was honored as the first ever recipient of the Eigen Award, presented by the International Association of Certified Fraud Examiners at the headquarters of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco.

His book on identity theft has been used by three of the top five U.S. banks to educate their customers on identity theft prevention. Neal is also the Executive Producer of the documentary series In the Company of Thieves that goes inside the world of professional identity thieves, and has appeared on the Discovery Channel’s Investigation Discovery series.

He has been quoted in numerous publications around the world including the New York Times, Forbes, Inc., the Wall St. Journal, the Huffington Post, CNN Money, BusinessWeek, USA Today, SmartMoney, CNET, Information Week, the National Law Journal, Today.com, NBC, CBS, CNBC, Fox Business, and the South China Morning Post.

His security awareness training programs have been used by Autodesk, Plaid, Rodan and Fields, and World Market, as well as dozens of Universities and the State of Ohio cybersecurity workforce program.