Sean Penn’s next gig is at security conference; index faults Seattle’s quality of life; Amazon.com is deemed the most-loved company.

Share story

Sean Penn is a Hollywood star, humanitarian hero, globe-trotting journalist, even ambassador-at-large for Haiti, a country he helped prop up after a devastating earthquake. Now he can add one more feather to his cap — that of keynote speaker at the nation’s most important cybersecurity conference.

Penn will speak Friday, March 4, at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, a gathering where lots of Seattle techies are expected (Amazon’s cloud-computing unit is setting up a “pop-up loft” near the conference center to hold talks by its experts on the topic.)

It’s an unlikely role for Penn, who in a recent article for Rolling Stone described himself as “the single most technologically illiterate man left standing.”

“At 55 years old, I’ve never learned to use a laptop. Do they still make laptops? No (expletive) idea,” he wrote.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Penn is supposed to talk with RSA President Amit Yoran about his work in Hollywood, his philanthropic efforts and “about the complicated relationship between Hollywood stardom and privacy,” according to an RSA blog post.

But the throng of cybersecurity experts gathering at that upcoming rubber-chicken luncheon may be more interested in a different tale: how he secretly communicated with Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, whom he interviewed for the Rolling Stone piece.

In the story he talks about “balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous email addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form.”

Guzmán, one of the most powerful criminals in history, ran a tight drug cartel, and even managed to escape from jail — twice, the last time through a magnificently engineered tunnel. But his cybersecurity efforts were not so good: Mexican authorities were snooping on his conversations with Kate del Castillo, a prominent actress who acted as the liaison between Penn and Guzmán.

Del Castillo and Penn even visited Guzmán together. Acting on their surveillance of the drug lord’s communications, the authorities captured Guzmán earlier this year.

— Ángel González: agonzalez@seattletimes.com

Our quality of life is faulted

Seattle finished first in a recent study of the best U.S. cities for professional workers — but No. 1 doesn’t mean perfect.

Global staffing firm Robert Half compiled a Career City Index that ranked 25 metropolitan areas based on factors such as career prospects, quality of life, cost of living and cultural diversity.

Seattle fared well on most categories except one: quality of life. Seattle came in at 25 — dead last. The top five cities in that category were Phoenix, Boston, Cincinnati, New York and Raleigh.

Hold the phone. Those cities and 19 more beat out Seattle on quality of life?

Turns out the quality of life category considered metrics Seattle is just not great at: number of sunny days per year, availability of housing and ease of commuting.

Other cities do enjoy more sunshine, but the study didn’t give Seattle points for winters that are far milder than in Midwestern and East Coast cities, acknowledged Joshua Warborg, district president for Robert Half in Seattle.

Still, the study dinged Seattle for weaknesses many residents know all too well. The region’s geography, congested roadways and primarily north-south freeway corridors make it a hard place to commute whether by car or public transit.

Strong housing demand means that apartment vacancies are low while the cost of homes keeps rising. That means that when out-of-staters show up to take jobs, and there are thousands of them, they struggle to find a place to live.

But don’t take the study as a backhanded compliment. Seattle took the top spot for a reason.

Strong job growth in professional sectors such as technology, finance and law, along with a relatively low cost of living, gave Seattle an edge.

While housing costs seem steep, Warborg said, the fact that residents don’t pay a state income tax makes Seattle more affordable than other high-rent cities such as New York or San Francisco.

The top three metro areas in the report — Seattle, Boston and San Francisco, respectively — had three main characteristics in common: walkable urban areas, highly educated residents and large coastal communities.

“Seattle is definitely a knowledge-based workforce,” Warborg said. Even though Amazon continues its whirlwind hiring spree, it is not the only company emerging as a major employer. The region, he said, has matured from previous decades when a large chunk of the population clocked in at Boeing.

“As a metropolitan area, we’ve diversified away from one organization that the city was beholden to,” Warborg said.

— Blanca Torres: btorres@seattletimes.com

Amazon ranks No. 1 in poll

Amazon.com has reclaimed the top spot as America’s most-loved company in an annual ranking of some of the country’s largest companies.

Market-research firm Harris Poll recently released its 17th annual ranking of the public’s perceptions of the 100 most visible companies in the U.S.

Despite news reports over the years about Amazon’s tough — some say brutal — working conditions, the online retailer ranked in the top 10 for the eighth consecutive year and even scored highly for the reputation of its workplace conditions.

Last year, Amazon was No. 2 on the list behind Wegmans Food Markets. The online retailer was No. 1 in 2014 and 2013.

Two other Northwest companies joined Amazon in the Top 20 this year, with Costco coming in at No. 13 and Microsoft at No. 20.

Nordstrom came in 37th, Starbucks 62nd and T-Mobile 73rd.

At the very bottom? Scandal-plagued Volkswagen Group.

Harris Poll, owned by Nielsen, surveyed more than 23,000 people to get their perceptions of companies’ reputations in the six areas of social responsibility, emotional appeal, products and services, vision and leadership, financial performance, and workplace environment.

Amazon, along with Google (No. 3 on the list, behind Amazon and Apple), ranked among the top five in all six reputational areas, according to the Harris Poll’s summary report of the findings. The online retailer showed particular strength in its product offerings and emotional connection with customers. It ranked fifth in workplace environment.

Starbucks dropped in the rankings from No. 31 last year to No. 62 this year. The company experienced declines in all six reputational areas, notably vision and leadership, social responsibility, and financial performance, according to Harris Poll spokeswoman Jennifer Frighetto.

Affecting the social-responsibility rating decline is that, last year, the study measured the impact of Starbucks’ announcement to offer free college tuition to its baristas. “This year is likely leveling out after that news,” Frighetto said.

— Janet I. Tu: jtu@seattletimes.com