Security experts at different companies find common ground in facing the same technical issues: too many alerts, not enough talent, and advanced attackers breaching basic defenses. But many also face the same nontechnical issues: burnout, mental health problems, legal problems, diversity, inclusion, attribution, work-life balance, substance abuse, and career challenges.
This year's Black Hat USA conference, which will take place Aug. 4 to 9 in Las Vegas, welcomes the addition of a new Community track created to shed light on these nontechnical topics. The idea is to open up a discussion of relevant issues affecting the infosec community alongside the usual technical talks.
In an industry as tiny and tight-knit as cyber, acknowledging nontechnical problems is just as important as unpuzzling technical ones. You (usually) see an alert when your systems are breached, but you rarely get the same red flag when a colleague is struggling with a mental condition.
Joe Slowik, adversary hunter at Dragos, says he was planning to submit another topic for his Black Hat talk before deciding to address the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in cybersecurity during a session entitled "Demystifying PTSD in the Cybersecurity Environment."
He changed his mind after reading the article "Cybersecurity PTSD Affects Many Security Professionals." Its author had swapped "PTSD" for "Job Fatigue" following upset among readers, acknowledging the term was inappropriate. The crux of the article is about how the industrywide skills shortage puts pressure on security professionals, who suffer job fatigue due to long hours, high stress, and growing workloads as threats become more complex and companies can't afford to address them all.
Infosec pros are no strangers to stress, but for those who live with PTSD, use of the term seemed wrong. Slowik, who served in Afghanistan and suffered from medical trauma, is among those who feel that way. "We dance around topics like these without really understanding or addressing them," he explains. "Flippant references to the subject in the community struck me as an ill-informed moment."
The number of diagnosed cases of PTSD is increasing as a result of military service, sexual trauma, and other harrowing experiences, he says. At some point, you or someone you know may live with the condition. In his talk, Slowik will share the story of how PTSD has influenced his life and career in cybersecurity, which he describes as a "cognitive haven."
His idea is to provide a perspective on what the condition looks like and give people a better idea of how they can help co-workers, friends, and others across the security community who struggle. By keeping matters "light," he hopes to give people an opportunity to discuss these subjects while addressing how infosec pros can support PTSD survivors.
There are good and bad ways to approach the subject, he points out. When remarks come from people who understand, that's one thing. When they come from a place of ignorance, however, there's an opportunity to educate the speaker on mental conditions and their effects.
Slowik's Black Hat talk is one of many addressing the issue of mental health in the security community. Christian Dameff and Jay Radcliffe will address the serious and important topic of mental health risk factors during their session "Mental Health Hacks: Fighting Burnout Depression and Suicide in the Hacker Community."
Dameff, a hacker who works as an emergency medicine physician, and Radcliffe, a security researcher who has lived with mental health conditions, will discuss the pressures of high-stress jobs, abnormal sleep schedules, social depersonalization, and other risk factors contributing to substance abuse and suicide. Their idea is also to get rid of the stigma and talk about topics that people are reluctant to mention but are broadly important.
The Community track is packed with sessions related to how security professionals live and work. Other topics include cognitive stress, law and policy, autism, sexual harassment and assault, hiring and retaining female security engineers, and addiction.
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