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.