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At RSAC 2019, It’s Clear the World Needs More Public Interest Technologists

Cybersecurity experts are no longer the only ones involved in the dialogue around data privacy. At RSA Conference 2019, it’s clear how far security and privacy have evolved since RSAC was founded in 1991. The 28th annual RSAC has a theme of “better,” a concept that speaks to the influence of technology on culture and people.

“Today, technology makes de facto policy that’s far more influential than any law,” said Bruce Schneier, fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, in his RSAC 2019 session titled “How Public Interest Technologists are Changing the World.”

“Law is forever trying to catch up with technology. And it’s no longer sustainable for technology and policy to be in different worlds,” Schneier said. “Policymakers and civil society need the expertise of technologists badly, especially cybersecurity experts.”

Public policy and personal privacy don’t always coexist peacefully. This tension is clear among experts from cryptography, government and private industry backgrounds at RSAC 2019. In the past year, consumer awareness and privacy regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), has created an intensely public dialogue about data security for perhaps the first time in history.

The Cryptographer’s Panel, which opened the conference on Tuesday, delved into issues of policy, spurred in part by the fact that Adi Shamir — the “S” in RSA — was denied a visa to attend the conference. Bailey Whitfield Diffie, who founded public-key cryptography, directly addressed the tension between the legislature, personal privacy and autonomy. Other keynote speakers called for collaboration.

“We are not seeking to destroy encryption, but we are duty-bound to protect the people,” stated FBI Director Christopher Wray. “We need to come together to figure out a way to do this.”

Moving forward to create effective policy will require technical expertise and the advent of a new type of cybersecurity expert: the public interest technologist.

Why Policymakers Need Public Interest Technologists

“The problem is that almost no policymakers are discussing [policy] from a technologically informed perspective, and very few technologists truly understand the policy contours of the debate,” wrote Schneier in a blog post this week. “The result is … policy proposals — ­that occasionally become law­ — that are technological disasters.”

“We also need cybersecurity technologists who understand­ — and are involved in — ­policy. We need public-interest technologists,” Schneier wrote. This profession can be defined as a skilled individual who collaborates on tech policy or projects with a public benefit, or who works in a traditional technology career at an organization with a public focus.

The idea of the public interest technologist isn’t new. It has been formally defined by the Ford Foundation, and it’s the focus of a class taught by Schneier at the Harvard Kennedy School. However, it’s clear from the discussions at RSAC and the tension that exists between privacy, policy and technology in cybersecurity dialogue that public interest technologists are more critically needed than ever before.

Today, Schneier said, “approximately zero percent” of computer science graduates directly enter the field of public interest work. What can cybersecurity leaders and educators do to increase this number and the impact of their talent on the public interest?

Technology and Policy Have to Work Together

Schneier wants public interest technology to become a viable career path for computer science students and individuals currently working in the field of cybersecurity. To that end, he worked with the Ford Foundation and RSAC 2019 to set up an all-day mini-track at the conference on Thursday. Throughout the event, there was a focus on dedicated individuals who are already working to change the world.

Schneier isn’t the only expert pushing for more collaboration and public interest work. A Tuesday panel discussion focused on how female leaders in government are breaking down barriers, creating groundbreaking policy and helping the next generation of talent flourish. Public interest track speaker and former data journalist Matt Mitchell was inspired by the 2013 George Zimmerman trial to create the nonprofit organization CryptoHarlem and start a new career as a public interest cybersecurity expert, according to Dark Reading.

On Thursday, IBM Security General Manager Mary O’Brien issued a clear call for organizations to change their approach to cybersecurity, including focusing on diversity of thought in her keynote speech. “Cross-disciplinary teams provide the ideas and insights that help us get better,” O’Brien said. “We face complex challenges and diverse attackers. Security simply will not be better or best if we rely on technologists alone.”

It’s Time for Organizations to Take Action

When it comes to creating an incentive for talented individuals to enter public interest work, a significant piece of responsibility falls on private industry. Schneier challenged organizations to work to establish public interest technology as a viable career path and become more involved in creating informed policy. He pointed to the legal sector’s offering of pro bono work as a possible financial model for organizations in private industry.

“In a major law firm, you are expected to do some percentage of pro bono work,” said Schneier. “I’d love to have the same thing happen in technology. We are really trying to jump start this movement … [however, many] security vendors have not taken this seriously yet.”

There are already some examples of private organizations that are creating new models of collaboration to create public change, including the Columbia-IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency, a recent initiative to create teams of academics, scientists, business leaders and government officials to work through issues of “policy, trust, sharing and consumption” by using blockchain technology.

It’s possible to achieve the idea of “better” for everyone when organizations become actively involved in public interest work. There is an opportunity to become a better company, strengthen public policy and attract more diverse talent at the same time.

“We need a cultural change,” said Schneier.

In a world where technology and culture are one and the same, public interest technologists are critical to a better future.

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Author: Jasmine Henry

Cybercriminals, Data Privacy, Data Protection, Education, FBI, Government, Personal Data, Personal Health Information (PHI), Personally Identifiable Information (PII), Ransomware,

FBI Warns EdTech Needs Stronger Defenses for Students’ Personal Data

Terms like “privacy,” “personally identifiable information (PII)” or “educational technology (EdTech)” often sound abstract and far from the responsibility of the average person, meant primarily for security and IT professionals. But when schools are forced to close after parents and kids receive ominous, personalized messages, as they did recently in an Iowa school district, according to the Des Moines Register, internet security becomes very real for the whole community.

Late last year, a cybercriminal group known as Dark Overlord — infamous for attempting to extort Netflix — stole data from school districts around the country, according to The Washington Post. Then, as part of ongoing extortion attempts, it used the pilfered information to threaten parents and students around the country. Districts in Montana, Texas and Alabama also closed schools after attackers texted threats to parents, according to CSO Online.

The Department of Education issued a warning and that round of attacks subsided, but others continue. Earlier this year, a Massachusetts school district paid cybercriminals $10,000 in bitcoin to regain control of its data after a ransomware attack, according to ABC News.

Inform the Public

Incidents like these have federal authorities increasingly worried about security at school districts around the country, even as schools increasingly rely on technology for everything from tracking performance to attendance.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently issued a sharply worded public service announcement aimed at schools and parents titled “Data Collection and Unsecured Systems Could Pose Risks to Students.”

Software used in schools collects a lot of very sensitive information, the FBI warned, including “[PII]; biometric data; academic progress; behavioral, disciplinary and medical information; web browsing history; students’ geolocation; IP addresses used by students; and classroom activities.” That data is a potential treasure trove for a group like Dark Overlord.

“Malicious use of this sensitive data could result in social engineering, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children,” the FBI said.

Social Engineering 101: How to Hack a Human

Expand District Resources

It is unclear whether the FBI’s warning came in response to a specific threat — as the Department of Education’s warning did — or was just a renewed call to action. Either way, the challenges are steep.

While increased use of EdTech products creates an ever-expanding set of targets for threat actors, many districts are facing tighter budgets, unable to buy the latest security technology that corporations employ, warned the Future of Privacy Forum, an industry group.

“Schools rarely have the resources to establish dedicated security staff, leaving technologists with a full plate — combating malicious access attempts while also handling humdrum IT issues and attempting to comply with new state student privacy laws; more than 120 laws were passed in 40 states since 2013,” it said.

How to Manage the Full EdTech Attack Surface

In the Iowa case, authorities say student and family data was stolen from a third-party supplier. Vendor management is a headache for all manner of organizations. The proliferation of outside organizations with access to students’ most personal information creates a vast attack surface for threat actors, warned privacy law expert Bradley Shear, CEO of school security consultancy Digital Armour LLC.

“Our public schools are fast becoming targets of cybercriminals. These types of incidents are increasing and costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per incident,” Shear said. “It’s not just school districts we have to protect from cybercriminals, but also their vendors.”

In its PSA, the FBI also called attention to internet of things (IoT) devices.

“EdTech connected to networked devices or directly to the [internet] could increase opportunities for cyber actors to access devices collecting data and monitoring children within educational or home environments,” it said. It also pointed to the risk of take-home devices, like tablets, or monitoring devices that allow remote access.

How to Give Power to the Parents

The FBI alert called on parents to become more aware of potential risks, and urged families to keep in contact with school districts about various EdTech programs they use. It also recommended participation in parent coalitions, and suggested regular internet searches to identify children’s exposure and spread of their information on the internet.

The Future of Privacy Forum also offers a number of tools to parents on FERPA|Sherpa, named for the federal law that governs data collection and sharing at schools, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The organization recommends parents regularly ask districts how they handle directory information, what the rules are for recording devices, how they secure children’s information and a set of other queries in their document, “Parents: Raise Your Hand and Ask Schools How They Protect Student Data.”

How School Districts Are Improving Data Privacy

School districts are beginning to tackle the problem by sharing resources and strategies with one another. Nearly 500 districts in more than a dozen states participate in the Student Data Privacy Consortium (SDPC), and they’ve implemented a model contract that vendors must use to ease vendor management, available on the SDPC website.

The SDPC says it leverages privacy-related projects by member districts “to have their good work utilized and no reinvention of existing work.” The Department of Education also offers a “Student Privacy 101” resource for various stakeholders, from K-12 administrators to vendors.

But for Shear, improving cybersecurity at schools needs to begin with an attitude about collection minimization. The less data schools and vendors collect and store, the smaller the opportunity for threat actors. Most critically, vendors and schools should delete information as soon as it is no longer necessary.

“Technology vendors have a huge bull’s-eye on them because of their insatiable appetite for personal information,” he said. “Recent data breaches … demonstrate why it’s necessary to have strict sunset provisions inherent in the data collection process.”

School districts must perform a balancing act when deleting data, however, as there are various data retention requirements to take into account. There are also juggling acts to perform when setting strict requirements around data to keep out threat actors while enabling access for educators and parents when necessary. Take allergy requirements: If a substitute teacher has trouble accessing his or her students’ health records because of a tricky login process, a dangerous situation could develop.

Parents, teachers, administrators and security experts need to engage in an ongoing dialogue about what schools must do to keep kids safe while ensuring they have access to the tools they need.

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Author: Bob Sullivan