I recently organized a month of programming at swissnex San Francisco around cybersecurity, hackers, computer viruses, and data privacy. Through the Project Cyber Virus public exhibit and four related events, our audience and speakers looked at these topics from the perspective of the past, present, and future.

We explored how vulnerable our world will become in the era of the Internet of Things and Smart Cities, and highlighted methods for securing a safer cyberspace.

All in all, we heard from 13 speakers with a vast wealth of knowledge, anecdotes, tips, and tricks related to privacy and cybersecurity. Here are the main takeaways I’ll be thinking about and acting on for my own reasons and for the greater good.

  1. Surveillance

    Governments participating in mass surveillance are unhappy about Apple and WhatsApp efforts to make their messaging highly encrypted, which is the trend.

  2. Protecting Yourself and Others

    One of the big reasons why you should use private communication tools isn’t for your own good—do it to protect the masses and the people who are really vulnerable. The more users on encrypted platforms, the better their individual protection is from mass surveillance. This is one of the reasons why Andy Isaacson of Noisebridge, who led a Cryptoparty at swissnex San Francisco, runs a Tor exit node.

  3. You’re Never 100% Safe

    It is impossible to completely protect yourself from targeted spying. If an organization knows who you are and wants to tap into your computer, they can add a keylogger that sends them every key you ever press on your computer, making privacy software useless.

  4. No Simple Fix

    Why don’t we just add artificial traffic—noise—to encrypted networks, generated by computers? Because these so called noise generators can be easily detected and removed by skilled data scientists.

  5. Screen Size Matters

    Whenever you access a website, your computer tells it what resolution your browser window is at in order to give it the proper content (mobile, wide, thin). This information can be used to track you down as you access different webpages from the same device, sending the same resolution out every time.

  6. Security vs. Convenience

    Adding security to anything will always come at the expense of at least a little bit of convenience. We heard this over and over again. But startups are working on reducing the amount of inconvenience by focusing on design and usability first in their solutions. One such solution is Signal, by Open Whisper Systems, which was designed on iOS by Christine Corbett, a speaker at swissnex San Francisco who received her Ph.D. from the University of Zurich.

  7. Asymmetric Warfare

    Cybersecurity is part of an extremely asymmetric warfare, as Mahendra Ramsinghani pointed out during an event at swissnex San Francisco called Ensuring Safety for the Future of Cyberspace. Hackers only need a laptop and time, of which they have plenty, to prepare and execute one successful attack, whereas companies must spend billions of dollars to get their security right—and it is expected to work with zero down time.


  8. Transparency is Key

    One problem with solving cyberthreat issues is that most companies, who are targets, are unwilling to share their IT security data, which could help track attacks. Typically, one company after another is attacked within a few hours using the same method. This is why we need more open data and sharing in this field.

  9. Viruses Then and Now

    Symantec, one of the world’s largest cybersecurity companies, used to receive between 10 and 15 viruses per day on floppy disks via mail, handled by Carey Nachenberg in the early 90s. Today, they get 10 threat reports per second.