cybersecurity, autism, and agency

cyberspy vs. cyberspyA telling episode of Frontline on an American terrorist went into implications of the Snowden revelations on NSA surveillance of Americans. Turns out all those reams of data and metadata on our phone calls, the internet browsing histories, and the GPS locations that the feds have been gathering didn’t help anyone identify David Coleman Headley as a terrorist; instead it was useful only after the fact, to corroborate the findings of traditional police work, mostly by interviews with witnesses and confidential informants.

Closer to home, employers are telling educators that cybersecurity needs more college graduates, with more interdisciplinary thinking. To which outsiders may justifiably ask, “huh?” We thought it was all coding, hackers vs. hackers.  What gives?

I think I know what gives, when I see the Snowden story.

Central Station 001Or when I picture you sitting inside a train station, strangers sprinkled around the lobby. Someone you don’t know sits nearby and immediately strikes up a conversation with you, uninvited.

It’s a bit odd, so at this point you become alert for the socially and interpersonally inappropriate. Why is this stranger approaching you to talk?  The intentions and mental health of your new acquaintance become suddenly relevant, and something you test for. How’s the eye contact? The assumed level of familiarity? Are you getting sized up for a sales pitch?  An assault? Evangelism?  If you stand up to leave, will you be followed?

In other words, our safety and effectiveness as socially and technologically connected beings rely on intercultural, interpersonal fluency.  There’s something essentially human in our ability to recognize and respond to the telling departure from normal behavior, and this is essential to good cybersecurity.  It’s the skills you deploy when a friend’s email account is hacked and you get a fishy request for money:  it’s not the identity that’s off, but the behavior.  That gets harder to spot when it’s people you don’t know well, who may live in countries with entirely different social and cultural expectations.

As the employers are telling us, work like that takes a college degree, not just IT training.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while — that Frontline episode was almost a year ago — but was reminded of it unexpectedly last week.  I was talking to a professor at CSU Monterey Bay about what exactly we should measure to demonstrate “engaged learning,” something I am paid to wonder regularly on behalf of the state.

He said it’s in the student’s behavior after the engaging experience, in this case service learning.  He said faculty will comment on a new energy behind the student’s decision of what to major in, or of what to do after college, or even about what’s going on in other fields.  He and his colleagues sense it not as shades of development but instead as a nearly binary condition: there’s something in the student now that didn’t used to be.

That observation, of a moment of growth that’s unambiguous to people who’ve taught for a while, reminded me of the train station example above, that interpersonal knack we can develop for reading and understanding each other, for recognizing the tells of a meaningful difference.


I think fields outside of higher education and cybersecurity may be better at recognizing, naming, and counting such behavioral transitions, because they’ve been working on this longer, and I think we could learn from them.

For example, there don’t seem to be chemical or genetic markers for autism; instead the diagnosis is made entirely by observing someone’s conduct.  There’s some controversy around it and the borders are murky, but educators might benefit from similar skills.

So could everyone else.  Good observation is more vital as we get more connected, giving individuals more potential impact on the rest of us than they used to have.

I’m not arguing for a state of mutual perpetual surveillance, but think we undersestimate the extent to which we’re all in this together.  A better understanding of behavioral markers helps with cybersecurity, sure, and also for better clinical diagnoses.  But we also need it — glaringly — to identify and preempt active shooters, for example, or to get past the present limits of our criminal justice system.

And, maybe, we need it to better orient our enormous and expensive higher education machinery toward the development of personal agency and responsibility.

Image credits:  Condren RailsCollege Hill Independent


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