The past is present: Riffing on a cybersecurity­appropriate tune for Black History Month

Cyber Security

What can social movements of the past teach you about the future – and about protecting your digital self?

Being African American and working at a cybersecurity company doesn’t seem at first glance to provide fertile ground for pondering about the historical past. So, when asked in August 2021 if I could write something for Black History Month, I was hesitant. However, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday January 15th, 2022, I’d accepted that it was the challenge for me.

Challenge accepted

I find it remarkable that I ended up working at an IT company, not to mention in cybersecurity. Yes, representation in the IT workforce by African Americans, other people of color and a diversity of persuasions is perhaps not what it should be, but what I see as remarkable having worked in security for six years and IT for eight, and what I want to communicate, goes beyond underrepresentation. Instead, my focus is on the teachable moment that Black History Month allows us.

So, what’s my riff? In the digital world, the majority of us reveal much more than our identities, we also share our beliefs and convictions, and can be categorized by them. What’s teachable about that?

My hope is that people better understand how powerful internet-based tech is and realize that along with the opportunity, there are risks that need to be managed – via a lifelong learning in cybersecurity. This is highly relevant for how people live and share the most personal aspects of their lives and identities in this digital world. At the end of the day, black, white or other, the only way to address both the opportunity and risk is via education and developing an ever-evolving understanding of this tech.

Now, historically speaking, there isn’t too much that ties the African diaspora directly to cybersecurity. However, that doesn’t stop my overactive brain from making connections. So, I will turn to recent history and current events to highlight for you how they do a funny thing – riff with the past.

The riff – not a divide but rather a repeated musical refrain

Which past? Unfortunately, neither the mathematics behind the pyramid builders, nor the cultural fusion of jazz feature here. Instead, I’m riffing on the near-past, and the swell of activism referred to as the American Civil Rights Movement, arguably waxing to its fullest extent between the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. The Board of Education (desegregation of public schools in the U.S.) in 1954, and encompassed by 1968, the assassinations of leading figures Malcom X and Dr. King, and the Fair Housing Act. These dates provide some clear reference points for anyone to look up a bit of Black History (in the U.S.), and act as a point of contrast with the recent pointy period of history making – the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and racial justice protests.

I should point out that the contemporary BLM movement also helped reenergize or draw new attention to several other recent racial justice and rights movements for Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and other aboriginal cultures worldwide. Since many also identify themselves as Black/Brown peoples, they should be mentioned in the context of this modern activism.

What resonance does this riff have with the past and the present? To keep this short, my thoughts must move from nostalgia and 16mm film clips of the Selma to Montgomery and Washington marches (the second march culminating in Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech), to data transmitted at light speed by mobile networks and fiber-optic cables. This jump to the present connects the two periods of activism, complete with various counterforces.

Now, in 2022, I wonder about those historical groups, marching and sitting-in, and how, or if they could have progressed so far, or perhaps further, had the committed volunteers mastered social media and free encrypted messaging apps to document their struggle, grow the membership of their organizations, organize rallies, and find like-minded thinkers. Or would they have been easy pickings for big data marketers, state-sponsored influence campaigns, countermovement influence campaigns, surveillance, targeted malicious campaigns, doxing, and trolling?

Breakout velocity in the digital age

All the hypothetical risks posed above are real possibilities today. However, two main points stand out for me as near miraculous.

The first is that modern rights and justice campaigns like Black Lives Matter were graced with the rich historical legacy of the American Civil Rights Movement in a way that can still be tied directly to today’s struggle. Recent events created their own powerful discourse around justice and generated enough emotive energy to bind powerful generational themes, including American slavery, the civil rights movement, and the organized civil disobedience that followed. This energy was effective at binding events from the historical past (American slavery 1619-1863) and the near past (1950s-60s in the U.S.) to the present.

The second point is that combined, the power of past and present combined meant BLM could break out of both real and imagined constraints of today’s digital (security/privacy) paradigms and simultaneously the constraints of, and benefits from, behind-the-scenes actors with diverse agendas.

But that breakout, that win, like those tense victories in the 1950s-60s in America, hung by a fine thread. The needle was moved forward by a mixture of hard work, faith, and destiny – those moments when doing what’s right seems predetermined to win the day.

Through 2021, and up to this very day, all of us have seen multiple groups, movements and activists, with many differing positions, both strengthened and weakened on a tide of (digital) engagement, and digital and sometimes physical counter forces. The news has shown the emergence of powerful cyberespionage tools and tactics deployed on groups and individuals alike to collect user data, infiltrate social media accounts, or track location. As such, the specter of hidden actors and agendas (now) hovers digitally over causes just and unjust.

These issues should do well to highlight what activists from the Civil Rights era risked in assembling, promoting and documenting their activities. Their acts, even basic organizational efforts, meant taking physical risks. Today’s activists largely face threats vectoring from the digital realm, as affiliation, personal data, cookies, social posts, documentation and location are all available digitally. And, while today peoples’ bodies may be less vulnerable, our digital personas are both valuable and vulnerable.

This should inspire a few questions to self, even for those who haven’t consciously pursued activism. What/how do I share with others about my current convictions? How long will I have them? Are they changeable, immutable? Where do I share my convictions? In person only – via social media? The answers of course are personal. However, we should imagine that just as our most important acts are burned into our conscience like data to a hard drive, so too are our digital lives.

This may give you pause about what you communicate, but more so should inspire some awareness of the need to consider digital security and privacy, and the necessity to grow your knowledge of them in line with your public activism, moral stance and digital exposure. It is easy to imagine in the near future further social campaigns like BLM or even of digital and privacy rights campaigns, complete with marches, picket signs any accompanying physical and digital security measures – what’s old is new, right? Just be reminded that the past provides us all plenty of lessons to inform the future. So, this February, perhaps let the Black historical experience, offer that new perspective.

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