Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Google ‘Security Princess’ Offers Hacker Insights at UNO Lecture

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More than 200 University of New Orleans students packed an auditorium to hear Google’s “Security Princess” discuss how she entered the digital security field and why “hacker” is not always a bad word. Parisa Tabriz delivered a Google Tech Talk entitled “The Hacker Spectrum: Tales of People that Break Things and How Being Hacker-Friendly Can Lead to Better Security.” Tabriz, who heads up Google’s security team, was introduced by UNO alumna and Google engineer Sabrina Farmer, who arranged the lecture.

Tabriz, whose actual business card bears the title “Security Princess,” discussed the main motivations of hackers and encouraged the audience not to assume what those motivations are.

 “I think a hacker is someone who thinks outside of the box,” Tabriz said. “Hackers are people who figure out how to use computers or software in unintended ways. I don’t assume any single sort of objective or motivation. I think hackers get a bad rap. What I’m hoping to convey is that they serve a purpose that’s important. I’d encourage you to think about that.”

While Tabriz acknowledged that some hackers, especially the ones that earn headlines, may not have altruistic intentions, she said that Google has enlisted the help of hackers to improve its own security systems. The company’s vulnerability reward program pays money to non-Google employees who identify vulnerabilities in Google’s software.

“Google and Chrome have benefited from hackers and engaging with hackers more broadly,” Tabriz said.

Tabriz, who wanted to become an artist as a child, discussed her introduction to computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She started taking advantage of free web hosting services to create websites, but was displeased with the requisite advertisements that appeared on her pages. So she figured out a way to block the ads, which sparked her initial in computer security.

She now occupies an important and visible position for one of the world’s leading technology companies. Her goal, as the manager of Google’s 30 person Chrome security engineering team, is to make Google’s web browser the fastest and most secure way to browse the web.

According to a recent profile in BusinessInsider: “Miss Tabriz, 31, is something of an anomaly in Silicon Valley. Not only is she a woman – a gender hugely under-represented in the booming tech industry – but she is a boss heading up a mostly male team of 30 experts in the US and Europe.”

Tabriz encouraged the students in the audience to consider whether they like identifying problems in existing computers and software and helping make them better. If so, she said, they might have the hacker spirit and they might have a career in computer security.

“I think a lot of hackers’ motivation isn’t damage, but power and knowledge,” she said.