In 2013, a teenager named Jann Horn attended a reception in Berlin hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel. He and 64 other young Germans had done well in a government-run competition designed to encourage students to pursue scientific research.
In Horn’s case, it worked. Last summer, as a 22-year-old Google cybersecurity researcher, he was first to report the biggest chip vulnerabilities ever discovered. The industry is still reeling from his findings, and processors will be designed differently from now on. That’s made him a reluctant celebrity, evidenced by the rousing reception and eager questions he received at an industry conference in Zurich last week.
Interviews with Horn and people who know him show how a combination of dogged determination and a powerful mind helped him stumble upon features and flaws that have been around for over a decade but had gone undetected, leaving most personal computers, internet servers and smartphones exposed to potential hacking.