[00:00:21] Tom Garrison: Hi and welcome to the Cyber Security Inside podcast. I’m your host, Tom Garrison and with me, as always, is my fearless cohost Camille Morhardt. How are you doing Camille?
[00:00:46] Camille Morhardt: I’m feeling extra fearless today.
[00:00:48] Tom Garrison: Extra fearless. That’s great. Wow. So our topic today is I think on the forefront of a lot of people’s mind, which is: with all the cyber security work that’s going on in the world, where are the heck are we getting all the people to do the necessary work and people that want to get into cyber security and the next generation, like, how do you learn about this stuff?
[00:01:11] Camille Morhardt: It’s an- I don’t want to say it’s a new field. It’s obviously been around for a long time, but I think it’s just gained so much popularity recently. And yet still it’s hard to fill seats.
[00:01:23] Tom Garrison: Yeah, there’s numbers that kind of range quite significantly–but you know, 500,000, a million jobs–the numbers are huge. Let’s just say there are plenty, plenty of cyber security jobs out there and people ask rightly so. Like they want to get into this. How do I learn about it and what groups are out there? And then even maybe more importantly is the next generation young kids and getting kids exposed to cyber security early in their life, changes their perspectives, whether or not they go into cyber security as a career path or not. It’s good for them to be exposed to the threats that exist today and really change their perspective on the world.
[00:02:10] Camille Morhardt: Yeah. And I know it, you know, in this episode when we talk with Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel about that and a bunch of the programs that she’s involved with in terms of getting kids an opportunity to experience cyber security and coding, it’s noteworthy, too, she’s a security architect. She’s an alumna of Intel where she was a security architect. And now she’s at Microsoft where she’s an architect. We had her on What That Means to help us understand what Fearless Computing is. So she’s come on, you know, as an engineer architect in her own, right. And now she’s coming on to talk about how other people can kind of ramp up and how she’s working with the next generation. I think we have another episode coming out right after this, about specifically cyber security, what do kids know? And we find out in fact, quite a bit, actually, if they’re plugged into some of these programs.
[00:03:04] Tom Garrison: Yeah. I think it’s a great topic. You know, first and foremost, if individuals themselves are looking at careers in cyber security, But also as a parent or as a relative of the younger generation and how to get them exposed to cyber security and, and maybe, uh, a set of experiences that will last them over their lives. So, uh, let’s jump right into it. What do you say, Camille?
[00:03:30] Camille Morhardt: I love it!
[00:03:36] Tom Garrison: Our guest today is Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel. She is Partner Security Architect at Microsoft. Previously, she spent 14 years at Intel focused on hardware-based security, product architecture. Abhilasha leads, multiple DNI activity, driving the retention and development of women in technology. She’s passionate about STEM K-12 cyber security education initiatives. As well as, she co-organizes regular camps and workshops for those same kids. So welcome to the podcast, Abhilasha.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Thank you, Tom. It’s great to be here.
[00:04:15] Tom Garrison: There are so many different topics that we could dive into today and we’re going to dive into several of them, but I thought maybe it would be good to start off with your story. Like, how did you get passionate about some of these areas that you’re spending time on now?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Oh, this is something that I can track back to almost a few decades back. I love math and I think there’s this always the service element was even in my schooling. It was a integral part of it, the love of math, which turned into technology and right after my high school, I got an opportunity to learn more about how math works with computer science. And I just spent a lot of– like kid in a candy store. There was so much to learn. And one of the areas that became extremely interesting was how all of the various areas in math and computer science, psychology–the multidisciplinarity aspect of cyber security–became really evident.
You know, it’s been one fun thing after the other for decades, and it’s as interesting as the first day.
[00:05:26] Tom Garrison: Yeah. It’s so insightful though. I don’t think people that are outside security necessarily have the same appreciation for how many disciplines are involved with security, because yes, you have some of the most complicated mathematics on the planet. Yes, you have that. You obviously have computer architecture, so you understand how the devices work and, and how they’re intended to work. So that way you can find vulnerabilities. But you also have it, the whole human element of psychology and manipulating people and knowing how people are likely to trip up if you do certain things. And it’s kind of the perfect storm of all of those areas, all in one. And that is what constitutes cyber security.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: I know. That’s why it’s so wonderful.
[00:06:14] Tom Garrison: Well, let’s go into one specific area that you’re, I know very passionate about. And Camille and I were both so intrigued when we, when we talked about this and that is your engagement with kids and how we can take the, the essence of cyber security and bring that to children.
And, and I’d love for you to just start with, what do you do today? What are you working in with different groups?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: It’s actually the best thing for me. Uh, someone asked me just a few days back on what gives me hope because we deal with unrelenting headlines. We deal with serious cyber security attacks across the globe. You’ve seen the rise in nation, state attacks, organized crime, ransomware, and name it. It can be exhausting. It can be one looking for somebody of hope of how we can get ahead. And what gives me tremendous hope is when I work with the kids and I see the light at the end of the tunnel. you know, they, the energy and the, the expertise–their own creativity and thoughts that they bring in–it really opens doors to multiple directions that we can pursue. As we talked about, it’s not one thing like you don’t have to just quit to get good at ciphers. You have to think holistically and the children coming together, learning and exploring the area and really trying to help be part of the solution, that is extremely helpful.
[00:07:45] Camille Morhardt: Can you tell us what some of the different programs are that you’ve put together or that you’re partnering with other folks on?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Yeah, there are multiple programs. Actually, many companies have been providing courses for kids. There is this National Cyber League, NCL, and they are gamifying the whole thing where you have these cyber competitions, but it’s not just there to compete the idea is to learn. So my kids, along with the kids in the community, they are working a lot with these competition platforms to learn and explore various areas. Uh, so they go into web apps, they go into ciphers. They even look at sleuthing. I mean, it is so much fun. They actually count hours of when the competition is going to start.
One other thing, which is not as organized are just ad hoc classes, kids, teaching kids. So that model over the last few years has worked really well. I’ve seen firsthand how amazing this collaboration is because my daughter she’s 12 and she worked with high school kids as well as elementary kids and put together a course. And on one hand, we are talking about nation state attacks, right, if you look at this perspective; on the other hand, they were kids from all over the world—US, Canada, Israel, Egypt, India, Bangladesh. They were all getting together and they were sitting in these Zoom calls. For some, I asked Muhammad from Egypt like, “Hey, you’re up at 3:00 AM,” but his face was beaming. He was into it. You know, he’s like, “this is really fun. I want to do more.”
And the kids don’t know these boundaries, you know; they just working together to see how they can protect themselves. And also for those who get more interested, how they can build in this area.
[00:09:54] Tom Garrison: The gamification seems like a really interesting way to connect with kids. Do these games have like people that are trying to defend, say a website, for example; and then another team that’s trying to take down the website? Is that the kind of games you’re talking about?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: It’s got both of them. They are ones who want to take down, like, what does it take for you to do that? But I love the idea of being able to protect. So the future is both, right? Not just red and blue, the ability to know both sides of it, some adversarial thinking. I think the kids love this model of “think bad, do good.” So think what can go wrong and then do what you can do to protect against that wrong.
So yes, these games actually look at all aspects of it. And it’s very interesting that when they even create outside the cyber security competition, they think of it; it becomes part of their DNA. Like they think about, “Hey, I can’t really put this here because it can potentially be compromised in this other manner” because they’ve done both sides of it.
[00:11:02] Camille Morhardt: So Abhilasha, you’ve worked with obviously many adults in the cyber security field, and now you’re working with a lot of kids. Is there any kind of, sort of fundamental difference between if you could just say make a blanket statement about kids versus adults, how they’re looking at it? I mean, the difference that I can think of in terms of how we all grew up is given a certain age, kids have never had anything not connected to the internet sort of completely in their lives. And some of we older folks didn’t start as kids that way. So I’m just wondering, is there some kind of fundamental difference?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Yep, for sure. And even between generations. You know, I love working from elementary to high school to college, and we see the differences because how fast the technology grows, we’re almost in an exponential timeline. So the fundamental difference I see for those who are peers, and who’ve been in this field for say 30 some years, there’s a lot of “been there”–like it’s not in a wrong way, but there’s a lot of repeat of what has been done. So being able to not take no for an answer and not saying, “Hey, yeah, we’ve been seeing this problem for decades and don’t expect the change to be happening anytime soon” versus what I see in the kids is if there’s a problem, they don’t care where it’s in the stack, whether it’s in the firmware. They don’t have a concept of this is hard or this is easy, they just go at it. And they don’t sometimes sleep. They just keep going until they really understand it. It was not just about learning a programming language.
So somewhere in the middle, our education was somewhat “let me learn this programming language and let me create programs.” Learning programming is now second nature to a lot of kids, even in elementary and middle school, like it’s part of what we do; but then taking it to the next level: how do we go protect it and understand what else can be done?
I really enjoy the combination of the two where I know a bunch of things from all the years, but seeing their new ideas and seeing something that I never thought of come from the kids is really amazing to see.
[00:13:17] Tom Garrison: Do you see the, the interest in kids amongst a broader set of kids? Like in the, in the day, back in the day–and of course we weren’t doing anywhere near the stuff that you were talking about–but, you know, there were, there were like the computer kids, right? They were the computer kids, they were off to the side. Then they had like the jocks and they were doing their thing. And they had the people that were in the theater; they were over in one of their group and they kind of stayed within their little groups.
Do you perceive that when it comes to the kind of activities you’re describing here for around cyber security, that there’s a broader interest? Like, are we getting more of the population interested in these kinds of activities?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: I think so. What I try to sometimes even fight is stereotypes. We’re not there yet, I think, because there are still some of those barriers. But what we’re really trying to get to is like, it’s not a type of kids are type of people who are working on computing; as we talked about earlier, it’s so multidisciplinary. Anybody from any field has something to offer. And your diverse mindset is so, so important.
You know, you don’t have to do the same old Minecraft. You don’t have to. Those are amazing. I don’t want to say that those are not great, too. They’re very good tools; but there are other areas where you can also build in. So, Math, for example, you know, they were math kids and they were the computing kids, but going back to the depth of computing, you know, sometimes my kids didn’t know that there was a phone number behind the name they saw on my phone. And that’s a real problem. You got to understand how the thing works and what are the details behind the scenes? So not just the breadth that we see in these cyber competitions and gamification, but I really liked the idea of the kids being exposed to it early and lots of them getting exposed to it early, so they can be picking areas of their interest.
My son, Arnold, he loves prime numbers. He’s been working on like so many variations of prime numbers and then I could help introduce how crypto evolved. Because the same crypto won’t work in years to come, we need folks to understand those details. You can just build on what has been already done.
[00:15:35] Camille Morhardt: I’m also kind of curious about your mentioning that a lot of we adults are concerned about maybe nation state attacks, where we’re reading about things in the news. What are kids concerned about? Are they looking at things on a personal level around privacy? Thinking about bullying online? What, what sort of things worry them? Or maybe it’s nation state attacks? I don’t know.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: You know, that’s what I love about them is like, I still feel a bit uncomfortable about nation state attacks because I have friends from these countries, you know, and I love their global thinking. Like for them, they sit down on these competitions and they meet and I think we can make a better society. Well, if he’s in those borders and doing things collectively for the good; so they’re not thinking of nation state attacks or having some notions. And the more we can make that happen, I think it’ll be better for all of us.
They are very worried about privacy–at least the kids that I’ve worked with, right. They’re not looking at attacks in hardware, software services, as much as we do because we we’re on this side, but personally, they say, “Hey, I can’t say this in public because it’ll be there forever and I can’t erase it.” Or “who else is listening to me while I’m talking?” So if my kids want to tell me something, they hush and say “you-know-who or someone who cannot be named should not be starting to record this.” So there’s a little bit that, uh, feeling under pressure of like my information is being recorded at all times. I think the privacy implications would be good to go back and revisit and not give it up because that’s stopping their mind.
[00:17:15] Tom Garrison: You know, I think you can bring to light, maybe some learnings that we have, obviously one of the goals we have is around bringing more females into high tech and into some of these STEM areas. And when you start off with very, very young kids, I presume like with math and other things, it’s pretty equal between boys and girls. And then as you age through the system, you start to see things that the stratification of male, female.
What have you learned from this? Like what can we do to make it even better to, to where we can encourage more female participation in these kinds of fields?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Yeah, this is extremely important. As the kids grow, they seem to be a little bit of divergence on, hey, the, the girls are starting to not fall into that mainstream computing education and so bridging that gap over there. Making sure that we make room, uh, not just have certain types, like you mentioned earlier, you know, folks who were not only just have access to it with all the good work, the industry is making compute available to everyone. That is great. But for girls, even for certain underserved communities, making that compute options available in different manners, that is as part of ongoing work.
So it’s not just say Minecraft or certain types of cyber competitions. Now you’ll see that these competitions are getting more inclusive and making sure that they choose those majors. And then getting more women in the industry–even those who have been doing other jobs–is also very critical. So those who didn’t get the opportunity to start from scratch, there’s a lot of good initiative out there, uh, where for the cyber security jobs–and we know that they had like 500,000 jobs in the US that are just there–and we just need to train existing workforce or existing population with certain cyber security concepts and certifications to enable the women to get those jobs.
So training certifications, give them a fighting chance to get that a cyber security job which will help role model other girls or their kids to take up that. So we need to do it in both angles as part of the education pipeline, but also for those who the gap that we have today, get more women, get more diversity in those.
[00:19:58] Camille Morhardt: How do you address the digital divide that we have in the world? Is there a way, is there a way around that?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Yeah, this is close to heart, actually, because we saw this even in COVID. We talked a little bit about this in a previous podcast that we had. But during COVID, you know, the people who didn’t have access to technology, they couldn’t register to get vaccines. This felt really, really wrong because we wanted the community as a whole to have access to the most fundamental resources. So the digital divide does need to be worked upon.
I know Intel, Microsoft, a lot of the top companies are launching programs to recruit from underserved populations to help community colleges–you know, it’s not just the top colleges in the world, but in community colleges–making computing and the courses available help with the workforce shortage. But I also love with, as part of the work with the kids, they go to churches, they go to communities and start putting these workshops and making it available. So every bit helps, you know?
[00:21:14] Tom Garrison: Well, Abhilasha, there’s so many things we can cover here. I, I, but I find this inspirational. I don’t know about you, Camille, what do you, what do think.
[00:21:21] Camille Morhardt: Most definitely. Yeah. I would love to hear from some of the kids, too.
Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Yeah, they would love to talk. They’re so good at it. I just, am amazed every single time when I see them in action. Um, so it would be great to have them and hear directly from them, as well.
[00:21:41] Tom Garrison: I, for one, you know, my, my kids are older now, so they’re kind of beyond the age I think of the programs that you’re describing here. But I know there’s a lot of parents out there that are thinking, “God, this sounds like fun. How do I get my kids involved?” So we will definitely provide links. But Abhilasha, do you have some of the names–at least like parents that might be jotting something down real quick on a piece of paper–programs that they might look into?
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: The National Cyber League is a favorite for a lot of people; The Cyber Camp, The CyberPatriot, these are competitions, if you just search for it, you will get the top link and it’s easy to enroll and join. So those are the top three that come to mind. There are many others, uh, like courses-wise and local community efforts, as well.
[00:22:34] Camille Morhardt: I also noticed in some of these engagements that you don’t necessarily need– a child doesn’t need a computer necessarily you can, um, you can access via tablet or another device. So there’s some flexibility. I know not every kid has a computer.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: I’m so glad that you brought that point. They make it accessible from different devices, even phones, Camille. Like I had kids who joined some of these cyber camps with their phones. We want to provide the best experience and do it, but we also make it available across the board.
There were folks who were just offering what they could based on what compute device they had. And just one more point there: one thing that we also want to work on is the kids who may be needing more of the accessibility, the kids may who may be blind or may have other aspects. Accessible cyber security education is something that we’re also working on to make it available for even broader community. And they do brilliantly by the way.
[00:23:36] Tom Garrison: Wow. Well, this is really inspirational. I just love that there are people like you, Abhilasha that are helping drive this, uh, through the industry. So thank you on behalf of all of us. But before we let you go, we do have one more segment that we like to do at the end of our, each of our podcasts and that’s called fun facts. And for everybody listening at home, normally we, you know, we invite the guest to bring in a fun fact of their own; but today, because our topic was kids, we changed it up a little bit and we want to share now fun facts that were provided to us from our kids. So Abhilasha why don’t we kick it off.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Okay. So one thing that many may know about you, Tom, is that you love fishing. And I found a fun fight that fit really well related to that. So did you know that recently in an Israeli research study, scientists taught a gold fish to drive in it’s own fish tank–which is on wheels–to go through a whole room and hit a target to receive treats.
So my kids, they love making ROVs and all that. So they thought this was extremely interesting.
[00:24:54] Tom Garrison: That is absolutely fascinating.
[00:24:58] Camille Morhardt: That is a really good fun fact.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Yeah, it was really fun because ROVs are part of a lot of STEM projects. So the kids, instead of working on their ML or AI algorithm, they’ll be maybe putting a fish inside and say “go with this route.” (laughs)
[00:25:14] Tom Garrison: Wow. That is incredible. All right, Camille, what do you have?
[00:25:19] Camille Morhardt: Okay, so my kids wanted to know after hearing about the work that you’re doing with children, who is the youngest hacker? So I’m sure there’s probably a competition around the world for really who that is. So I’m just going to say one of the youngest hackers that we found by Googling is a kid named Christopher VonHossel. And at five years old, he was frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t get into his father’s X-Box–he wanted to play the games and they had put parental controls on it.
And then one day, parents came into his room and found out that he was playing the game–he was playing the Xbox. So they confronted him, you know, “how did you get the password? How did you get in?” And he’s like, “well, I, I didn’t, I just-“ Basically, he found a backdoor (laughs). He hacked his way in and so they reported it to Microsoft and he is actually listed as a researcher on the Microsoft website. And he was five when he discovered that. So one of I’ll say the youngest known hackers.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: That’s totally incredible (laughs).
[00:26:21] Tom Garrison: Wow. All right. Well, in the, I guess in the honor of Abhilasha, your son, you said loves prime numbers. I have a numbers fun fact. And that is, that it is not until the number 1,000 that the letter “a” is ever used, to spell the numbers.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: That is amazing. I’m going to share with him right after this.
[00:26:52] Tom Garrison: Abhilasha, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing with us this fascinating topic. And one, I think that really does make us all feel hope and energy about the next generation and, uh, I, I found it fantastic. So thank you so much.
[00:26:52] Abhilasha Bhargav-Spantzel: Thank you.