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Meet the New 'Public-Interest Cybersecurity Technologist'

A grassroots movement is emerging to train high-risk groups and underrepresented communities in cybersecurity protection and skills – all for the public good.

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A glimpse of what security vendors could do for the greater good of society and democracy came in the run-up to the 2018 US midterm elections, when a wave of firms – including big names such as Alphabet unit Jigsaw, CloudFlare, Microsoft, and McAfee – all offered free security services and products to state attorneys general, local election jurisdictions, and campaigns to help them secure their websites, end users, data, and communications.

The catch in some cases, though, was that many of the free services – everything from user account protection, DDoS mitigation, email security, and malware detection – were offered gratis only for a period of time before, during, and after the election. Critics said those temporary freebies were more about a new business opportunity than a full-on philanthropic effort.

But not Jigsaw, whose mission is to assist vulnerable communities around the globe. Dan Keyserling, chief operating officer at Jigsaw, which spun out of Google's Alphabet, says the organization's free cloud-based security service, Protect Your Election, also was recently deployed in Ukraine during the elections in that nation, and a team from Jigsaw was on-site assisting. The service includes DDoS mitigation, password manager, password compromise alert, and personalized security recommendations, for candidates, campaigns, publishers, journalists, NGOs, and election-monitoring sites.

"We operate in extreme circumstances with high-risk users. We often operate in countries where there's systemic oppression," Keyserling says. "They are on the frontlines and need access to information and to share it with people who need it. They're journalists, activists, policymakers ... people interested in overcoming barriers to get access to information."

Keyserling says he sees more tech companies beginning to help assist the most vulnerable users. "We're really encouraged by our friends at other tech companies who are really showing an interest in these groups of people and making sure they have the tools they need and increased their deep knowledge of security," he says.

While the security industry will always have a for-profit model, he says, there's room to contribute to the most at-risk and needy communities, he notes. That starts with having a public conversation about the issues of public-interest security risks and needs, according to Keyserling.

Reality Check
Schneier says while the freebie election security offerings from security vendors were a good example of what the industry could be doing to serve the greater good, there's still relatively little giving back right now. "Security vendors have not taken this [area] seriously yet," he notes.

The time is ripe for security to establish public-interest technologists, Schneier says. "It's coming to a head with the Internet of Things [wave]," he says, "and elections, voting machines, network platforms, algorithmic fairness, drones, surveillance, and big data. Social and policy issues are no longer ignorable."

These issues, of course, are bigger than security, he says, but he's doubling down on his home sector of security, including in his own work as a fellow and lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "Technology is intertwined with public policy: cybersecurity ... biotech, climate change," for example, he says. "There's value here. It helps democracy, which is great."

By working in the public-interest sector side of security, the opportunity exists to become a better company and policymaker, Schneier says.

"We need a cultural change," he says. 

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