South Africa’s renowned white hat hacker

SensePost CTO Dominic White is one of South Africa’s best-known white hat hackers and has become the face of cybersecurity for many people.

White’s love for computers started in school when his mother bought him a second-hand computer from one of their tenants.

“I immediately tried to plug it all in and get it turned on. I soon realized I had no idea what I was doing, but I wanted to figure it out,” he said.

He did figure it out, and quickly realised that high school computer science presented many opportunities for mischief.

White fondly remembers setting up a firewall to block the school’s monitoring tools so he and his friends could play Quake instead of writing Pascal code.

“We even infected each other’s machines with BackOrifice to spy on their StarCraft strategies,” White said.

University years

White enrolled for a BSc in Computer Science at Rhodes University in 2000, where he studied a mix of commerce, mathematics, computer science, history, and philosophy.

He majored in computer science and later completed Honours and Master’s degrees in computer science.

While at university, White and a few friends formed a club called Hack @ Kaos where the rules were simple: they could hack each other in any way possible, but they needed to respect personal privacy and share with everyone how they did it.

“I remember hanging outside a friends bedroom window on the second floor as a gutter slowly cut into my arms drawing some blood,” White recalls.

“I was waiting for him to go to the bathroom so I could trojan his SSH to capture a password, mail it to myself, then delete itself.”

Pursuing a career in security

It was not until his post-graduate studies that White realised computer security could be an actual job.

He decided to pursue security as a career and completed his Master’s degree in computer science specialising in security.

After finishing his studies, White started a job at Deloitte South Africa’s Security Services Group doing security consulting and auditing.

White’s first hack

White’s first real hack was the shared Unix server “RUCUS” at Rhodes, which ended up causing a world of trouble.

“This earned me a useful lesson in getting permission first; which took me a few more mistakes to learn properly,” he joked.

His days of mischievous hacking disappeared when he started working in the security field, where he now focuses on making life difficult for criminals online.

One project which he remembers with fondness is working with the FNB mobile app team before it was first released.

“They implemented things like certificate pinning and numerous other defences that were far ahead of their time,” said White.

While his focus changed from his university days, White says he still hacks things on occasion to learn things first-hand about the security world.

White hat hacker

White said his personal mission is to help companies to be more secure and to ideally make a meaningful dent in the ability of real criminals to operate successfully.

This puts White squarely in the white hat camp, although he feels the old hats descriptors don’t hold up as well as they used to.

“I think the hacker style is to treat rules and the existing order as suggestions and to aggressively try to change the way people think and maybe do it with some counterculture style,” said White.

“If this was Dungeons & Dragons, I’m probably closer to Neutral Good.”


Dominic White’s tech and business choices

Which smartphone do you use?

Heh, are you phishing me? I use an iPhone.

iPhone XS

Which laptop do you use?

A MacBook.

What is the best gadget you have ever bought?

My HF radio is easily one of my favourite gadgets. There’s something deeply exciting about bouncing signals off the ionosphere. I wish I got to use it more.

What is the worst gadget you have ever bought?

An Apple Watch. It has such exciting geeky hacker potential, but Apple has exposed so little functionality that it ends up as an overly expensive fitness tracker.

Apple Watch 4

What Internet connection do you have at home?

Fibre.

What is the best investment you have ever made?

I’m definitely not the person you want to ask about investments. If I am pushed for an answer, but, the time spent with ex and current SensePost Hackers is probably the best time investment. Seeing what they go on to achieve warms the cockles of my heart.

What is the worst investment you have ever made?

Cars. I hate them so much.

What is the best business book you have ever read?

I strictly read for pleasure with a big focus on science fiction – It expands my thinking and ends up as an interesting lead into other fields like philosophy, history, or science.

In one of my rare forays into the world of business books, Etsko Schuitema’s “Intent” had a significant impact on me.

Now read: How easy it is to hack you in South Africa

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South Africa’s renowned white hat hacker