Online security is no longer just about the safety of our personal and professional data. It’s about the protection of our self-image, our self-worth, and even our human interactions outside of tech. It’s about learning to control technology and using it in a conscious way instead of letting it control us.
Hannah Tufts is a Cyber Security Awareness Specialist whose approach to improving our online behavior stems from the realization that mindfulness can be the key to gaining back control in all areas of life. She believes that practicing simple mindful techniques can help us navigate the technology that is always trying to define us and seep into our offline communication. As a woman in cyber security working her way around the flaws of this largely male-dominated industry, she has experienced first-hand how rudimentary online security awareness is in general. After moving to Spain, she created Exhale Barcelona, a consultancy that aims to promote smart online habits through disruptive educational programmes and transformative brand strategies.
Barcelona Startup News sat down with Hannah to talk about how she started her career in cyber security, what inspired her to delve deeper into spreading awareness about the importance of changing our online behavior, and what we can do to make sure technology doesn’t spoil the way we – and our children! – see ourselves and interact with others.
How did you get involved in cyber security? We all have preconceptions of what cyber security specialists “should” look like, and it seems like an unusual career choice for a young woman.
I actually landed in cyber security by accident. I graduated in English and American Literature and thought I wanted to be a journalist. I had big dreams of heading to London and working for a fabulous glossy magazine. But at the time, in 2010, it was super difficult for grads to find jobs in the UK, and I managed to land a role at a small agency that specialised in cyber security awareness campaigns. They were working on implementing internal education campaigns about the responsibilities of employees: everything from classifying documents and recognising phishing attempts to password habits, etc. In cyber security, it’s a general rule that humans are any organisation’s weakest link: you can layer on all the technology that you want but in the end it’s going to be a person who clicks that attachment and unknowingly installs the malware. So it’s all about education and awareness.
What was your first impression of the industry in terms of gender equality?
Interestingly, even though the founder matched the classic stereotype of middle-class ex-military male, the company had a huge ratio of women to men. It was really exciting to go into a female dominated environment in tech. And I soon realized that was what gave us the advantage.
And what exactly constitutes this advantage? Why do you think the cyber security industry needs more women?
Women tend to have the softer skills needed to engage people using communication a bit more than men do, and statistically they’re much more risk averse. Humanising security and engaging a workforce with this typically dry subject needs a different perspective, which women are well placed to offer. Traditionally, cyber security has been a male arena focused on compliance and ticking boxes, and not about actually implementing change and getting people to alter their behaviours and adopt habits to protect themselves and the organisation they work for. We found that one of the best ways to encourage people is actually to relate these issues to their personal lives. Because that is where they care more. It’s easy to feel like the data you handle at work is not your responsibility. But when it comes to protecting your own bank accounts or your kids’ online safety… it’s much more of a priority for everyone. So that was our approach, to engage the human element. And I think more gender diversity only strengthens our efforts to educate people in this way.
After your initiation to the world of cyber security, you spent four years working in corporate finance. What was your experience there regarding security awareness?
When I was working at Barclaycard I had the chance to see from the client’s side how visible the messages about the importance of security were. And the fact that they actually weren’t visible at all was eye-opening for me. It was clear that people were not engaged with the subject matter, and not enough was being done besides the standard elearning material that nobody has time for.
The next step in your career was a huge one: you moved to Barcelona from London and started working at a cyber threat intelligence startup. How did it go from there to starting your own business?
When I joined Blueliv in Barcelona, I was excited to be back in the world of security, but as anticipated, I found myself in a very male-dominated environment. As a woman and an expat who didn’t speak Spanish, it was difficult for my voice to have an impact in that organisation. I was at a time in my life and career where I was always looking ahead for progression, but my inherent demands as a ‘Gen Y-er’ for opportunity as well as work-life balance weren’t satisfied. It was then when I started getting into yoga. I found YOMU, a project that combines yoga and live cello. I fell in love, and it became my coping mechanism as I adjusted to life and work in a different country. This was the first time in my life that I really started focusing on mindfulness and began to experience its advantages.
Soon after, I found another role at another company where I struggled for similar reasons. Then I started a freelance branding project for someone I used to work with at my old cyber security company back in the UK – another woman who went on to start her own business. And that’s what gave me the push to transition to freelancing full-time.
What is it that makes you so committed to raising awareness about cyber security? What do you think are the most pressing issues, the most problematic elements of our online behavior today?
The fact is that the consumption of often meaningless content doesn’t actually make us happy. It makes our backs skewed and creates negative thought patterns about our own success – because it makes it really easy to compare ourselves to others.
There is a lot of pressure on us. We feel like we have to create a persona online that only shows us in the best possible light. We’re very careful about handpicking those moments and trying to impress our friends, while we often fail to admit the fact that we do not see every single day through a filter.
In terms of body image, everything that we see on social media is of course highly filtered and airbrushed. And we interpret it as reality and see it as something to compare ourselves to. That’s what we’re up against, even though it’s not real.
And worst of all, the level at which we consume technology is actually impacting our ability to communicate with each other in person. You never see a group of friends at a table without devices. All of their face-to-face interaction is facilitated by the content that is on their devices, whether it’s a photo or a meme or a video. The conversation will be anchored around that. Notifications distract us from real life conversations that we’re having, and our ability to focus, to be in the moment is diminished.
And this is where mindfulness comes in.
In what ways can we use mindfulness to adopt better online habits?
I know everyone is talking about mindfulness these days, and to some, it sounds a bit “hippie”. However, I think that being mindful can actually improve your ability to focus and clear your mind. Our minds are constantly racing: we just can’t wind down, we’re always on. We wake up in the middle of the night and subconsciously check our phones. There’s an addiction and a sense of validation that comes with social media, and to balance that, we can use very subtle, manageable practices. Like literally breathing. Taking a few minutes to breathe deeply. When we’re running around, we’re breathing very shallow and that keeps our bodies in a state of stress. We just need to breathe to tell our bodies to relax. Or, for example, when we’re faced with a difficult, stressful situation online, like a debate in the comments section that can get very personal very quickly, we just need stop. We need to take a moment to process the many emotions we’re going through, and try to rationalize how we’re going to deal with that situation. Mindfulness is simply about developing a more acute awareness of ourselves, and the smaller things.
If you’d like to find out more about mindfulness and how it can help you gain back control in a highly connected world, join Hannah at her upcoming talk: The Remarkable Effects of Being Mindful Online on 17 May in Barcelona! For more events like this one, check out our monthly events guide.
Your definition of online security has a lot to do with empowerment.
Yes. I think that a lot of people would struggle to define themselves without referencing tech in some way. Whether that’s simply using a device to share photos of your pet or your kids, or defining yourself as someone who works with technology. Security is about having a more balanced outlook. Feeling reassured that you are capable, that you are strong, that you do not need technology to define yourself, and that you’re not being compared to everything else that you see online.
You are involved in several projects that are about raising security awareness among children or young adults and making sure they adopt a more mindful approach to technology at a young age. How do kids respond when you try to talk to them about this?
We tend to think that kids are just so addicted now that there’s no point trying to discuss this with them, but I’ve found that they very much do listen and can be surprisingly open about their experiences online. And they have a very mature outlook, which is probably a result of growing up in this era when they’re more digitally advanced, and have been exposed to so much technology since such a young age. Actually, more and more teenagers are starting to want to explore taking a break from social media, but peer pressure and the fear of missing out hold them back.
I think we need to make sure that our children allow time for real life, and that we educate them about the importance of using tech for good, at the same time being conscious of the online reputation that they’re building. Is that series of selfies really what they want to be known for? And another part of it is equipping girls in particular with the skills they need to be able to break into these industries. So there are lot of benefits to opening up this dialogue and encouraging young people to be reframing their interactions with tech now.