As a self-proclaimed ‘scientist of the future’, Heather Vescent has plenty of experience in cybersecurity, tech and futurist topics.
Her first career was in product management in Silicon Valley, helping to build and launch more than 50 internet and software products. “I’m all about understanding the problem technology is truly solving for humanity.”
After growing tired of working for start-ups, Vescent went back to school and got a master’s degree in strategic foresight to be a legitimate “trained futurist, vs strategists that change their title,” she said.
Since then, she has deep dived into several ‘future of’ topics, hosted two podcast series and wrote/produced several video scenarios about the future. “I am all about understanding how technology impacts humanity, to help us harness it for positive benefits.”
Vescent also has extensive experience and passion for the cybersecurity industry, having written a number of books on the topic and her research has been published by the New York Times, CNN and the Atlantic.
When I asked her how she came interested in cybersecurity, she told me about some work she did for the US Army, where she was exploring the future of military education.
“For the scenario, we had to have a curriculum and the most concerning area of future (that the military must train for) is cyber war. So, our scenarios included cybersecurity training and I had to research a lot of cybersecurity to create a fake future military cybersecurity training curriculum and learning environment.”
She then collaborated with a long-time professional friend, Bob Blakely, to research and write a paper identifying 12 new future scenarios and 12 new security paradigms and then she “just kept going down the rabbit hole”.
“My parallel expertise in digital identity has become more relevant as cybersecurity breaches attack data payloads and companies are looking to use more secure digital identity and data security technology. I am currently the co-chair of the W3C Credentials Community Group, which helps to develop new technology standards for increased data protection.”
The portrayal of the future
Vescent said she feels very lucky to be able to write and produce several video scenarios about the future, which whet her ambitions for producing a full docuseries about the future.
“A few years ago, I tried to get a series about the Future of Money off the ground. However, Hollywood is a hard place to break into if you don’t know the right people.” For now, she said her dreams of having her own future-focused docuseries is still a work in progress.
“It’s always hard for me to watch documentaries done by outsiders on a topic when they don’t always interview the right people or get the right experts, in my opinion, not to mention when the experts they interview on camera lack diversity,” she said.
“One reason I wanted to produce my own stuff is to counteract the typical dystopian view of the future. The future is a friendly place that is inclusive for everyone, not just what the media decides to portray. I have always tried to show a diverse, friendly, positive vision of the future in my scenarios. I am proud that my video scenarios include lots of women and POC actors,” she said.
“However, my work tends to stay in its niche, where it has a limited impact on the future. I’m still waiting to break into the mainstream.”
Emotional aspects of cybersecurity
Vescent said she believes that while there’s a lot of talk about the topic of cybersecurity, it’s important to understand the motivation and the “emotional aspects of cybersecurity”.
“Hackers use emotion and immediacy to cause targets to be unbalanced. So, when you are being emotionally triggered, take a step back. I realise this is hard to do when all of 2020 is emotionally triggering – but that is also part of infowar attack.”
She added that when protecting against hackers and security is discussed, “we don’t always talk about the ways to increase our own emotional resilience and the things that platforms, the media and technology can do to decrease drama and increase a calm balanced response.”
She also talked about the broader global economic landscape that leads to hacking and ransomware and what motivates these cybercriminals.
“If you live in a country where you have good education but there aren’t necessarily well-paying jobs and people still want to improve their livelihood, they might turn to crime. In some countries, if you have a technical/security background, the fastest way to make a lot of money is by working for government as a hacker,” she said.
“Those are just two examples of the complex interaction of trends and that the solution to something may not be to straightforwardly ‘solve’ for the immediately identified problem.”
Vescent also said that while those inside the infosec community can work with futurists to identify new potential threats and attack vectors, they also need to make cybersecurity accessible to those outside the community.
“This has been the most secure US election ever – but because we don’t necessarily have a lot of security training, we might not take someone else’s word for it. So, like with many new technologies, you have to make complex technology problems and solutions accessible and exciting to everyday people. And that can be a challenge.”
This is one of the goals Vescent is hoping to achieve in one of her latest books, Cyber Attack Survival Manual. Her other recent book, The Secrets of Spies, examines the history of spying, so I asked her how she believes the evolution of technology has changed the world of espionage.
“There are two trends: technology making current techniques challenging so there is some return to cold war tradecraft and at the same time, because of technology now countries can attack adversaries and conduct espionage from the comfort of their home country,” she said.
She said this throws up problems when it comes to trying to prosecute cybercriminals who aren’t working within the relevant jurisdiction.
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