The Future Guardians of the Web

November 17, 2016
AAUW Tech Trek attendee in Santa Barbara. Photo by Jay Farbman for AAUW.

AAUW Tech Trek attendee in Santa Barbara. Photo by Jay Farbman for AAUW.

By Beth Pearsall
Freelance Writer
San Diego, California

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine. For more stories like this, subscribe to Outlook today.

There’s no denying that the Internet has fundamentally transformed the way we live our lives. We can buy products, pay bills, run businesses, chat with loved ones across the world, instantly share files, stream movies and music, and countless other things — all by touching a button on our computers or smartphones. Online tools have certainly made our lives simpler. But with that simplicity also comes great risk.

Our financial, health, and other personal information exists online in a way it never has before, creating opportunities for scammers, hackers, and identity thieves. In fact, identity theft is now the fastest-growing crime in America. Thieves can use your personal information to drain your bank account, run up credit card charges, open new utility accounts, or get medical treatment with your insurance. An identity thief can even file taxes in your name and receive your refund. Victims are often left suffering the consequences for years.

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“In our latest Internet Security Threat Report, we’ve estimated that more than half a billion personal records were compromised last year,” says Patricia Nevers, associate program manager with Symantec Corporation’s corporate responsibility team. Symantec is a cybersecurity and technology company based in Mountain View, California. “More than 75 percent of all legitimate websites have unpatched vulnerabilities, which hackers are exploiting. And last year Symantec blocked 100 million fake technical support scams.”

The company is seeing more and more threats pop up each year, says Nevers. “With every new digital device and connected car, the risks are increasing,” she says.

Heavy Demand, Short Supply

Every few weeks, a new data breach makes headlines, whether it’s a celebrity’s phone contents, human resources records, or the e-mails of a movie studio. And some hacks are clearly a matter of homeland security. As a country, we face threats from global cyber criminals who are looking to damage U.S. infrastructure, disrupt or hijack our networks, steal trade secrets from our companies, and compromise our personal information. As a White House statement on its cybersecurity plan explains, “Criminals, terrorists, and countries that wish to do us harm have realized that attacking us online is often easier than physically attacking us in person. And with more and more sensitive data being stored online, the consequences of those cyber incidents are only growing more significant.:

Strengthening our cybersecurity is clearly paramount. Yet our ability to do so is hindered by a severe workforce shortage.

“It’s estimated that there are 1 million open cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. alone,” explains Jaime Barclay, manager of Symantec’s corporate responsibility department and comanager of its workforce development program. “There are just not enough qualified people to fill these roles. Companies are taking a long time to fill openings; meanwhile vulnerabilities continue to grow. With the threats mounting, it is critical that we fill these jobs quickly.” Symantec even has a goal to engage 1 million students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by 2020.

Solution? Add Women

It’s no secret that computing fields continue to be male dominated: AAUW’s research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing revealed that women make up just 26 percent of the computing workforce and that there is little racial diversity in the field. But the gender gap is particularly acute in cybersecurity: Last year, a survey conducted by ISC², the largest organization that certifies cyber professionals, revealed that women account for just one out of every 10 cybersecurity professionals. That is down from 11 percent two years ago.

Yet a variety of ideas is exactly what the field needs. “Hackers come in all genders and ethnicities,” explains Barclay. “They come at companies in many different ways and are relentless in their pursuits. To stop these threats, it is going to take a lot of different approaches. Having a diversity of mindsets in your workforce is invaluable.”

computing shareable-01

To help draw more women to the field, Symantec gave AAUW a $100,000 grant to develop a cybersecurity class for middle school girls who are interested in STEM. The course expands the curriculum for the national AAUW Tech Trek program, a highly successful, weeklong STEM summer camp that was started by AAUW of California in 1998 and adopted as a national program in 2013.

More than 1,470 girls attended AAUW Tech Trek at 21 sites around the nation in 2016. The cybersecurity course was piloted at camps at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Stanford University in California, and the University of California, Irvine, in 2015 and took place at 13 AAUW Tech Trek camps in 2016.

Thirteen-year-old Grace Beal from Northern California took the cybersecurity course at the Stanford camp. She had been interested in cybersecurity but didn’t know where to start to learn more. “I knew what is shown in the movies, but I wanted to know what was really going on today,” Beal says. “But it all just seemed daunting to me.”

At AAUW Tech Trek, Beal found that starting point. There she learned about the “dark web”— hard-to-access sites that can be used for illegal activity—and how the Internet is a lot more than just Google. She learned how to tell if something is a scam. She learned basic binary coding. She even helped take a computer apart.

“It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Beal says. “I met a lot of great people and was able to have really deep conversations about science and math, which is one of my favorite things to do.” And although it’s too early to tell whether she will pursue a career in cybersecurity, Beal says she now has a clearer understanding of the field and knows better what she likes and doesn’t like, and she is excited for what the future holds.

That is one of the goals of the Symantec-AAUW collaboration — to excite girls about cybersecurity. “Bringing middle school girls to a college campus, teaching them about cybersecurity and other STEM fields, and providing a support network for them — it’s a win, win, win,” says Nevers.

AAUW Solves for XX

Research has shown that reaching girls in middle school is crucial to closing the gender gap in STEM, because the coursework girls pursue in high school and college sets the stage for them to enter STEM careers later. The cybersecurity courses at AAUW Tech Trek camps are introducing girls to career options they probably didn’t know existed; girls are also getting hands-on training to fill well-paying roles in a field where women are underrepresented and workers are desperately needed.

“AAUW is working hard to increase the number of women in technology, and we’re so glad to have organizations like Symantec supporting our efforts to encourage girls to consider the full range of STEM studies and career options,” says Ana Kay Yaghoubian, the STEM programs senior manager for AAUW.

As our economy and society evolve along with science and technology, the marriage of supply and demand that AAUW Tech Trek and collaborators like Symantec are facilitating is more relevant than ever. Tech Trek campers are certainly the innovators of tomorrow, and they could end up being the future guardians of our increasingly online lives.



Fall 2016 AAUW Outlook magazine cover

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By:   |   November 17, 2016


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