KEARNEY — A man who keeps computers battle-ready on U.S. Navy vessels said anyone can be a cyberattack victim. He advises watching for signs your computer has been attacked and updating systems when it’s time.
Joe Wilkins, a naval IT contractor who at one time lived in Kearney, also said it’s wise to beef up passwords and change them regularly.
“I usually have a longer than 16-character password,” Wilkins said. “and I use upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters. You really don’t want to use words you can find in a dictionary.”
For people who are employed by companies with IT departments, Wilkins said, “follow their directions. Nobody wants to go through something like ransomware.”
Wilkins has a healthy respect for cybersecurity because in his career he defends U.S. Navy ships at home and abroad against foreign hackers, or as he calls them, the “bad actors.”
“It always surprises me how creative the bad guys are,” he said. “It’s usually foreign governments trying to get in, but there also can be insider threats.”
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Wilkins, 50, is technical director for Science Applications International Corp., known in the acronym-rich U.S. Navy as SAIC.
He said in the same way a homeowner hires a plumber to install a water heater and then calls the plumber when there’s a problem, SAIC installs massive computers for the Navy and then keeps them in operating order.
Although the plumber makes trouble calls across town, Wilkins and his technicians tackle the Navy’s technical issues around the globe.
“Landing on a carrier can be interesting. You’re going 150 mph, and then the aircraft stops very fast,” he said.
With the Navy, computers perform a host of functions, and one of the most important is helping sailors stay in touch with friends and family. A chat with loved ones back home can be a big morale boost, he said.
When he was younger Wilkins performed in a blues band, Black Cat Bone.
At around age 30 he took an interest in computers and taught himself their ins and outs.
Today, with SAIC’s military contracts rapidly multiplying, Wilkins has a job with a lot of responsibilities. He said he’s earning a good living. The days of strumming tunes on the corner and hoping passersby drop something into his guitar case are long gone.
Troubleshooting doesn’t always require a trip halfway around the globe. At times he can talk sailors through an issue by phone.
Computers often don’t travel well at sea.
“When ships are in 20-foot seas, there’s a lot of jostling,” Wilkins said. “Everything has to be ‘ruggedized.’”
Systems can vary in size and power. Some systems might occupy the space of a three- or four-car garage.
Wilkins’ work takes him to naval installations around the globe — Japan, Spain, Italy, Egypt and Hawaii, as well as bases on both U.S. coasts. He lives in San Diego with his wife, Larissa Grebeshkova.
Currently, tensions are high in the Middle East, and U.S. naval vessels are on high alert as they patrol the region. However, Wilkins said U.S. ships always are on high alert in that part of the world.
“There’s always been good and evil, right and wrong,” Wilkins said. “There are a lot of good guys out there trying to track down these bad actors and hold them accountable for their actions.”