October is the month devoted to activities to raise awareness of cybersecurity and privacy risks and ways to overcome these. It is “the Super Bowl of cybersecurity” as Tazin Khan mentioned in a recent podcast. Deciding whom to interview for a blog to celebrate Cybersecurity Awareness Month (both for the US and the EU), the first name that popped into my mind was Fareedah Shaheed. Fareedah is a strong proponent of educating families to create safer communities.
The content of the interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What is your background, Fareedah, and what are you working on these days?
Fareedah: “I was born in Maryland and then I moved to Saudi Arabia when I was around eight years old because my father got a tech job there. I spent my growing-up years in the Middle East. There I learned French in Arabic, and I got to understand different cultures, different languages, different ways of thinking, and different ways of doing things. And that made me appreciate human beings. It made me appreciate how different we all are. And once I decided what I wanted to do in college, which was cybersecurity, I realized that the field that we’re in doesn’t really embrace people that are different, and not always tech-savvy.
I was always very sensitive to difference because of my experiences of being a black girl in Saudi Arabia and just being different. I feel that no one should be judged and feel guilt or shame for not knowing security, or not knowing tech because I know how that feels.
So, I thought ‘You know what? I want to create a space where people can learn about tech, they can learn about cybersecurity without feeling guilty, without feeling shameful.’ When I was working in cybersecurity awareness and threat intelligence, I was doing a lot of presentations. I made sure that every time I was doing any education, I was doing it in a way that was open, friendly, fun, that was non-judgmental. And people loved that. That’s why I started my business, to help families protect their kids online.”
How do you approach people that are techno-phobic?
Fareedah: “It is true that there are people who are reluctant to adapt to unfamiliar technology. I like to connect with them, with where they are. I don’t try to push them into new thinking immediately. For example, if they really love to post a lot of pictures of their kids online, then I will always say to them ‘before you post the next picture, just think about how this could be used for bad’. Is there something in the picture that indicates your location or your kids’ school or where you’re going? It is better to slowly get them in the mindset of thinking that.
With parents, of course, it’s not hard to convince them about the importance of keeping their kids safe. When you highlight that something bad could happen, they will always give it a second thought. They may have questions, and they may ask how and what could happen, but it is always worth validating their feelings because they are real. They have a valid point, and we don’t have to force a change. It is better that we take a journey together.”
What are the biggest concerns that families and parents have about Cybersecurity?
Fareedah: “Who their kids are talking to, what their kids are doing. The effect that being online may have on their kids, with concerns about screen time, being on social media, or the content that they see online. What effect it will have on them if they’ll come across inappropriate content, what to do if that happens, and how to block that from ever happening. Those are the things that I hear a lot. And of course, gaming goes into that as well.
The digital gap between kids and their parents is the key source of these concerns, of these fears. Many parents think that they can do so much because their kid knows more than them. As they say to me ‘Even if I restrict access, they can still get around it.’ There is a lot of fear around that because they feel that they may be missing something with tech or with security or with safety and privacy. And oftentimes they most likely are, but they feel like they just can’t do enough. And this is very scary for them. That’s something that I hear a lot all the time.”
Do you believe that installing parental control software is a solution or should we build confidence between parents and kids?
Fareedah: “I agree with building a connection and trust and not relying on the software. I believe the software has a place a hundred percent, especially as kids are younger because there’s only so much you can say to a 2, 3, 4, or 5-year-old. You have to block certain apps because you don’t want them to do certain things. But as they get older, it’s not enough to block things because the problem is bigger than just one app. When they become seven years old, then you can move on and have conversations with your kids.
The point is that you develop a good relationship with yourself and with your parents and you grow into a full-fledged human being and you’re healthy. Sometimes, parental controls can do more harm than good because you can’t control everything. And even if you’re sneakily recording your kids, it’s very difficult to bring up a conversation about what they did wrong when they didn’t know that you were recording them.
I believe that monitoring and controls are different. When I think about controls, I think about restrictions and what can they do and what can’t they do. Monitoring is using software to monitor their activities and what they’re doing. There are a lot of privacy and security issues with some of the monitoring programs. And that’s why I’m always hesitant to recommend that to parents. But again, there is a place for monitoring and there’s a time when monitoring is needed.”
What do you think is the role that governments can play in this area? How can governments promote Cybersecurity?
Fareedah: “I feel like they should play a foundational and educational role. Making sure that the companies have security, safety, and privacy by design whilst regulating these requirements. Assessing and evaluating that these companies are doing what they’re supposed to do. And then by providing free security, privacy, and safety education for families and schools whilst providing the required resources.
I also believe that school has a big role to play because they influence kids just as much as their parents do. I believe that security, privacy, and safety need to be treated just as important as math and science. Every single school should have some type of curriculum that’s designed for digital citizenship.”
How do you see the future of our digital society? Do you think it’s going to be brighter or is it going to be darker?
Fareedah: “I think it’s going to be both. It’s whatever each person experiences, whatever you believe. That’s what it’s going to be. We all have our own reality. So, for me, I believe that it’s going to look as amazing as I make it to be, to be honest. As technology grows, it’s going to be brighter and darker at the same exact time. I believe that it’s just going to be like competing forces and every day you have to wake up and decide which one is it going to be.”
What is going to be the biggest danger?
Fareedah: “I would say unhealed humans are the biggest danger. People who don’t prioritize mental and emotional health are the biggest danger. If you’re not healed, you’re not going to use things in the right way. And for most people, it’s going to cause harm to themselves. I’ve caused harmed to myself because I was not in a good space, and many people have caused harm to themselves because they didn’t make great online decisions. Most people are just going to affect themselves, maybe affect their kids or their family. Other people are going to affect hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of people. So, I think it’s people and not because we’re inherently bad, we’re just human and we just make mistakes.”
And now, my favorite part of these interviews. Five more personal questions to get to know Fareedah a bit better.
Favorite type of music: “My favorite type of music is what I call epic music. I love instrumental music. I have different types of instrumental music. I believe I have at least 10 playlists on different types of instrumental. So sometimes it’s vocal, sometimes it’s movie score.”
Favorite food: “French fries are the classic one. My favorite cuisine is Indian cuisine or Middle Eastern cuisine. Those are my favorites. But I have other ones that I love. Like I love Korean cuisine.”
Favorite place for vacations: “I have not been on vacation for a very long time. Internationally, I want to go everywhere, to be honest. But the first place I want to visit soon is Dubai. I would love to go there, and I want to practice my Arabic, so that’s a perfect place to vacation. Within the States, I would love to chill for like a couple of weeks in a cabin in the woods, where it’s just me with someone I love, or like a couple of friends.”
Favorite book not related to cybersecurity: “You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, by Dr. Joe Dispenza. That was really great.”
If you weren’t in cybersecurity, what would you like to do? “There’s a part of me that wants to be a chef. I’d just be traveling and meeting different people and hearing people’s stories, different cultures, and dancing. Like traveling in the world, eating different foods, going to other people’s houses, experiencing what they love.”
Fareedah Shaheed is such an amazing person to talk to and I have really enjoyed our discussion.
Looking for more information on online safety?
In today’s world, everyone is digitally connected and must think about safety and security both online and offline. For further information, please check out our blog Safe at Home: Cybersecurity is for Everyone.