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Hacking for a cause: Public-interest technologists needed to fight cybercrime

Leading security experts make a call to arms for volunteers who possess the critical thinking, creativity, and passion required to strengthen security and apply it to social causes.

Do you have a cause you feel passionate about? Civil liberties, human rights, domestic abuse, conservation, animal rights? If your answer is yes, raise your hand. Technologists are desperately needed to help further causes and protect them and other public-interest groups from cyberattacks.

At the Black Hat conference, security technologist Bruce Schneier said, “Help defend organizations that are doing good. You can help organizations around the world that are being attacked.“ He pointed to the ongoing human rights battle between Amnesty International and China, noting, “It’s not exactly a fair fight.”

Public-interest technologists can have backgrounds in technology, policy, or law and work for governments, non-governmental agencies, corporations, research institutions, and others, said Schneier, who is also a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and sits on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Some pursue it as a career, while others do it in their spare time or take short sabbaticals to pursue public-interest technology. 

Disclaimer: Screen volunteers just like a regular job candidate who will have access to secure systems and highly sensitive data. A small operation will be as likely to hire a wolf into the fold as to find someone talented.

Hacking for public good

“This is a problem that is not being solved, and not enough people are working on it. Hacking for public good is going to take on a whole new meaning when it isn’t about data but about flesh and blood,” said Schneier. “It will be about touching the world in a way we haven’t seen before.”

While there doesn’t appear to be any real statistics on volunteerism in IT or security-related fields, the sheer volume of organizations that need help seem to far outweigh the potential pool of volunteers. Your skills are needed whether you come in at the ground floor as an intern, as a highly skilled professional, or as a consultant or board member.

Citing the use of widespread surveillance to violate human rights on a global scale, as well as focused cyberattacks on targets as diverse as governments, hospitals, corporations, and critical infrastructure, Schneier and fellow panelists Camille Francois, chief innovation officer at Graphika, and Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called for volunteers who possess critical thinking, creativity, and passion to strengthen cybersecurity and apply it to social causes. They hope those who answer the call will help solve some of our biggest social problems and ensure an open, positive, and safe digital society.

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A possible new career path

There are many ways to help, and the stakes have never been higher.

“Supporting people who have been abused and harassed by governments [or individuals]—that stuff doesn’t require a degree in computer science,” said Galperin. “It requires reading, learning, and cultural sensitivity. You don’t need permission to become a technologist; there are no gatekeepers—you can do it yourself.

“I may not change the world, but everyone has to do something, to lift someone else up and ask who’s being left out of this conversation,” Galperin added. “We need to gain the trust of vulnerable people to share with us what they need done. Again, you don’t have to wait for permission. Go to a group with a mission you care a lot about, observe their problems, and see what you can do to help.”

And it’s not just a cause you might commit to in your spare time; the panelists said they see this need as a more expansive up-and-coming career path.

“Public-interest technology is emerging as a field, and I’m excited about that,” said Francois. 

I may not change the world, but everyone has to do something, to lift someone else up and ask who’s being left out of this conversation.

Eva GalperinDirector, Cybersecurity, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Schneier agreed. “We need to build a world where there is a viable career path for public-interest technologists,” he says in the January/February 2019 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy. ”Technologists need to be involved in all aspects of public-interest work, from informing policy to creating tools. The world needs all of our help.”

Public-interest technologists, as Schneier describes them, are tech-savvy people who use their expertise to work on tech policy or a project that benefits the public or who work as traditional technologists for an organization with a public benefit. 

“Public-interest tech brings people with specific technical expertise into the fight for social change,” Schneier said. “The opportunities for technologists to put their skills to work for the public interest are endless because technology affects nearly every aspect of our lives today.”

The panelists agreed that few policymakers are discussing security issues from a technologically informed perspective and that there is a significant disconnect between them and technologists that must be corrected. 

“We need public-interest technologists in policy discussions. We need them on congressional staff, in federal agencies, at non-governmental organizations, in academia, inside companies, and as part of the press,” Schneier wrote in the IEEE article. “In our field, we need them to get involved… everywhere cybersecurity and policy touch each other.” That includes the vulnerability equities debate, election security, cryptocurrency policy, IoT safety and security, big data, adversarial machine learning, critical infrastructure, national security, and even artificial intelligence and robotics. 

Schneier has put together a thorough resource page specifically for public-interest technologists with a public policy focus that includes everything from an overview of the field to funding sources, university programs, and programs to put technologists in policy positions.

“We need to save the world together,” said Schneier in an interview. “There are so many opportunities—pick the one that motivates and excites you!”

Hacking for the greater good: Lessons for leaders

  • Do something. Lift someone else up. Ask who’s being left out of the conversation.
  • Skip the formalities. You don’t need permission to get involved. There are no gatekeepers.
  • Find a group with a mission you care about. Observe their problems, and see what you can do to help.
  • Consider a career change. Experts see public-interest technologists as an up-and-coming career path.
  • Vet volunteers as you would a full-time employee. 

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.