Talking cybersecurity with Phyllis Schneck

Photo by Brenda Lin

On Oct. 28, Georgia Tech held its annual Cyber Security Summit (GTCSS), marking the release of the Georgia Tech Emerging Cyber Threats Report, presented by the newly launched Institute for Information Security and Privacy. Here to inaugurate the new department were keynote speakers, Tom Noonan, the founding partner of a technology investment firm called TechOperators, and Tech alumni Dr. Phyllis Schneck, who serves as the deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications for the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD).

The newly launched institute is co-directed by Bo Rotoloni, who currently is the director of Information and Cyber Sciences Directorate at GTRI, and Dr. Wenke Lee, a Tech professor in the College of Computing. The institute will be promoting student participation in research on cybersecurity. “Come to our research talks and participate in our activities,” Lee suggests. “For example, the Demo Days, where you can come see the latest research projects by students or showcase your own, and hacking competitions where you can learn and practice cyber attack and defense skills.”

Lee also advises students interested in working with the institute to contact the faculty listed on their website, “Tell them your interests and background and they would try to find a suitable research project for you,” Lee said.

The Technique had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schneck about her experiences as deputy under secretary of Cybersecurity and Communications for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as a women leader in a statistically male dominated field and as a Georgia Tech graduate.

Technique: Why is cybersecurity so important, especially now when its so universally impactful because everything is linked to technology?

Schneck: Cybersecurity is a big part of Homeland Security, and a big part of our job is to make sure that we protect our way of life, so that people can have fun and enjoy our country and continue to innovate and keep our national leadership. So cybersecurity, being interlocked with everything from the food we eat to the cars we drive — it’s important that we understand that we need to protect electronic connectivity.

Technique: Are there any specific infrastructures in the government that Homeland Security specifically focuses on, or that are really important?

Schneck: There are sixteen different sectors such as electricity, water, government services, IT and communications. All those, it turns out, are linked together. Think about the electricity industry. You need electricity to run water, for people to drink, to understand how to spend money. All of that is inextricably linked So our job is to figure out where those interdependencies are. If you think about a power outage, you have about three days on a standard diesel generator, so in three days are you going to have a truck from the transportation sector bring you more diesel, or is the power going to be back on? Part of what we do is to work with the private sector, so to get the electricity experts, the cyber experts.

Technique: What are your thoughts on Tech’s role in the field of cybersecurity?

Schneck: [Cybersecurity] is very important to Georgia Tech. Tech is a powerhouse for science and community, so if there’s one place on the planet that I would put my money on to help us solve this problems, it’s where we’re sitting today. Georgia Tech is entering the map [of cybersecurity], and I am very optimistic that we will be a large part of how our country succeeds.

Research is what makes Georgia Tech stand out. The job of research is to say ‘what’s next … what should we be preparing to come?’ So where is the next technology going to come so that we are ahead of the curve, but also, what are the newer technologies? How can we innovate, and how can we get creative? That’s where the students come in. There’s no time in your life that you can be more creative — and I speak from personal experience — than when you’re a student.

And to put this many students together is the way we’re going to solve this problem with the power of what Tech brings to the community, to building centers, to working with other companies and universities.  Even the alumni networks here speak worlds of this because from the minute a student enters Georgia Tech, there’s a support system. And I think it’s important that this school set that example for so many others, both in protecting your own security and also helping others to more innovative approaches.

Technique: What are your thoughts on student innovation?

Schneck: I think students [at Tech] have a lot of opportunities for innovation because they’re exposed to so many different things — you have multiple classes, multiple toys. Your phone can eat the phone I had when I was here. So all this being given to you at a time when you’re also working with professors who have different kinds of expertise, and at a school that quite frankly prides itself on finding the best professors from the best research programs — bringing all that together creates a set of four or five years for an undergrad that’s unmatched. The ideas that come out of here, I believe, will set us to leadership in the future as a country.

Technique: You’re a very successful woman in the tech industry, and unfortunately only five percent of women who hold leadership positions in departments such as yours. To what do you owe your success and how would you encourage other young women who are pursuing specifically cyber security and IT fields to succeed.

Schneck: I learned computers from my dad. That’s what he did and that’s what I learned and was curious about growing up. So that’s where I ended up. I was lucky — I kind of grew up with it and I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted. And I love it. There are actually a lot of people in our department. The example I have every day is amazing — I work for an amazing leader, the honorable Suzanne Spalding, the undersecretary of National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD). We work with the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcements, Sarah Saldana. There are many women — our privacy officer, Kara Newman, our head of civil liberties, Meghan Mac. There are so many women throughout our department that are great examples of women leaders.

One of the coolest things I did this summer was I went to speak to Girls Who Code and had a really good time. These are girls that give up their summer to learn computer programming. We need this talent, so I brought them into our operations center, which is our number one spot for where all the cyber threat indicators come and where all the folks are for Homeland Security. We got them a special tour through the watch floor that most people would never see. Cyber doesn’t mean just computer programming. It means operations; in some cases it means understanding history and politics, but I want to bring these girls in early and show them the excitement that should be theirs.

Technique: How has the knowledge from Tech helped you in your job now?

Schneck: Oh, it’s helped me every day. I was a student of Karsten Schwan, who passed away a few weeks ago. One of the things Karsten let me do was to integrate cyber security — I was the first one to do a Ph.D. in cybersecurity with a study of high performance computing.

I still focus today on the power of computing and how we bring intelligence together using computer speed to make our networks a lot less vulnerable and a lot less willing to let adversaries take them over. There’s a huge future based on the power of computing that I think Karsten let me experiment with and do the first research here, ever, on cybersecurity and cryptography. That allowed me to have patents and start a company, and I think that I leverage that experience everyday.

Reporting by Brenda Lin