CoffeeShop Chronicles: The sheriff of the Internet

Everyone has a story that should be told about themselves, their neighborhood, or someone they know. Occasionally, I set up at a table in a coffee shop and interview people who stop in. Today, I set up at the SugaRush Coffee Shop on University Avenue in St. Paul. Here’s another story:


The fact that you’re reading this on the Internet might have something to do with Bob Alberti of Minneapolis.

He says he helped invent the Internet Gopher at the University of Minnesota, the predecessor to the World Wide Web. He created the first commercial online roll-playing game, and now he’s in the business of the online battleground. He’s in Internet security.

“I’m cursed with the long view,” he says. “I have the ability to see things coming. In the ’90s when everyone was looking at the Internet, I said, ‘this Internet thing is going to start with no rules, and then they’re going to develop best practices, and then regulations, and finally laws. And this is going to take place over about 15 years. And the best place to be is going to be Internet security.’ So I pinned a sheriff’s badge on myself and made myself the sheriff of the Internet.”

This week we’ve seen the Internet chase against Wikileaks. Alberti has seen bigger cyberwars.

“I worked for a large local retailer and they were opening offices in China and I had to write a memo to their board to alert them to things they hadn’t considered,” he says. “If you’re going to open up a data center in China, you will have China intelligence officers working in it. You won’t get the right to open up that data center unless they’re confident they can do that. ” China, he says, uses the computer infrastructure of foreign companies to launch cyberattacks on its own enemies.

Now, Alberti runs his own Internet security consulting business. “Denial is the primary component of our (the U.S.) defenses right now,” he says.

One day in 1993, he was helping the the Star Tribune, now the most dominant Web site in Minnesota, set up its first Web server. He missed an important meeting in 1993 because of a phone call. It was his birthmother calling — the one he’d been searching for.

“I didn’t have any expectations. I assumed they were typical young people who had an accident and here I was,” he said. “You always worry that someone is going to be a criminal or a drug addict, but my birthmother sold timeshares in Provincetown (on Cape Cod). She was wonderful, creative, and sad. She was the only person in her family that didn’t die of alcoholism and she assumed wherever I was, I was probably alcoholic as well. She was happy to discover that I’m not an alcoholic.”

“My half-brother. We’re both in computers. Both atheists and we can both bend our fingers at the first knuckle (see photo).”

“I’m the eldest child of four different families.”

His adoptive parents, he said, supported his search, “but I think in part because they didn’t think I’d ever find, then when I did find, I think they were a little hurt about it. But they never met.”

His birth mother has since passed away.

He chronicled his search here.

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