From teacher to protector
Lynn Houston’s call to cybersecurity
Stay safe was the sign-off of 2020 as everyone hunkered down in fear of coronavirus. But there are other enemies out there of which we need to be wary. While doctors and scientists labor feverishly on vaccines to halt the spread of COVID-19, our own Lynn Houston (PhD English 2003), along with other top minds in the field of cybersecurity, are hard at work countering daily attacks on our systems.
As a privacy officer in the National Privacy Program at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Houston is helping to keep the American people safe by protecting their private information and advocating for their data rights. “Especially, during this pandemic as more people are online for work and personal lives, it is paramount that we practice good cyber hygiene,” says Houston. “Just like you can get infected by COVID-19, you can be ‘infected’ by malware and viruses online.”
Stolen identities, wiped out bank accounts, and children terrorized by online hackers via “smart” devices are traumatic experiences with disastrous effects. Hackers can breach someone’s social media contacts and break into network devices. Unsecured devices, like cell phone-controlled lightbulbs, can be entry points allowing hackers to take money from a bank account. Everything is connected like one big spider web. Some of those connections are “bad actors” searching for information that will do us harm. They aren’t just in Hollywood; bad actors or threat actors refer to hackers—criminals who threaten our security. A device must be properly configured so that accessing it won’t broadcast the router’s password.
“Social media is a dangerous place. It has existed for some time with the sole purpose of collecting data about people to sell to advertisers,” warns Houston, whose team has used password crackers—A.I. that determines password patterns used for brute force attacks. She explains: “Even if it isn’t Zuckerberg tracking your movements and listening to your conversations (unless you use private browsers like DuckDuckGo and turn off cell phone permissions) bad actors use your social media posts to gather open-source intelligence to hack accounts.”
Houston cautions against completing online personality quizzes because they can provide hackers information to intercept passwords. A word to the wise: become a hard target! Hackers won’t waste time on hard targets when there are “soft targets” easier to exploit. The password 1234 can be cracked in a second. If passwords are created using personal information, such as a birthdate or school mascot, social media profiles provide good fodder for bad actors.
It hit me then that I wanted to move into the IT field to be around other highly creative problem solvers ... cybersecurity seemed like the logical choice.
Houston’s career trajectory from humanities to cybersecurity has been one of adventure, risk-taking, and revelation. As a professor at a West Coast university, she created a course called "Food and Literature" and spearheaded the formation of a minor in food studies. Due to lack of funding for humanities and professional battles among colleagues, she turned to community college teaching in New York. A natural born teacher, Houston loved educating and inspiring students, but wasn’t a fan of the politics in academia. Trying large and small state schools, she couldn’t find a place that allowed her to be successful, personally and professionally. It seemed that education’s true value had become buried under budgets and business deals. Coming from a family of teachers, it was a difficult decision to give up on academia, but It wasn’t the respected life of intellectual curiosity she had anticipated.
One day she was tending her honey bees and took on one too many stings, sending her into anaphylactic shock and to the ER. Luckily, she survived! When she left the hospital, she vowed to make changes in her life. She received an MFA at Southern Connecticut State University and started a small literary press, hoping for a career in publishing. It didn’t take long to discover that, in the era of Amazon, it’s difficult to make money in print publishing. She began researching non-academic jobs and was hired by the U.S. Army as a technical writer, through the federal government’s Pathways program.
Houston spent two and a half years editing and writing technical manuals that instructed soldiers in the use and maintenance of their communications equipment. She became a specialist in Extensible Markup Language (XML), a Department of Defense (DOD) requirement for technical publications and the backbone for creating interactive electronic technical manuals. Tagging with XML is tedious, which prompted Houston to take it a step further and learn PowerShell. She also devoured two books on the program and watched YouTube videos. Six months later she was able to write a script that automatically tagged the manual with a “just the click of a button.” The Army gave her a cash award for saving them money and sent her to Kansas for a month-long “Emerging Leaders” workshop, during which time she realized her passion.
“It hit me then that I wanted to move into the IT field to be around other highly creative problem solvers,” says Houston, who admits being drawn to the important nature of cybersecurity and desire to make a contribution to society. “Cybersecurity seemed like the logical choice because the DOD was always advertising that it needed top minds in that field in order to counter the thousands of daily attacks on our systems.”
My PhD in English from ASU prepared me extremely well for most of this.
She enrolled in a cybersecurity program at a community college and completed a certificate in Cyber Defense at Harford County Community College. She loved classes in "Computer Forensics" (where she learned to extract hidden data from photos), "Fundamentals of Network Security" (where she learned to intercept data transmitted on a network, including passwords), and "Network Defense and Countermeasures" (where she learned how to thwart a hacking attempt). Harford County Community College is on the list of National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity maintained by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Houston won second place in a "capture the flag" competition last year sponsored by Capitol Technology University, where she had to decipher codes, retrieve information from photos, and interpret network logs.
Houston continued to learn new skills and applied for a volunteer position through Open Opportunities on usajobs.gov. She was hired for a special assignment by the EPA as an IT Specialist to safely digitize workflows in the privacy program. She spent months securely digitizing workflows and writing custom PowerShell scripts using MS Forms, Power Apps, and Power Automate. She went through eight weeks of Federal Privacy Boot Camp, run by the Federal Privacy Council to learn laws and regulations that govern collection and retrieval of personally identifiable information. A few months later, she left the Army and began her current full-time job as Privacy Officer at the EPA. She writes scripts and designs computer applications for task automation and data visualization to support decisions about national security within the federal government.
“My PhD in English from ASU prepared me extremely well for most of this, and for the rest, I was able to make use of free educational programs within the federal government and an inexpensive certificate program at a local community college,” says Houston, who, since leaving her teaching career, has quadrupled her salary while working 10-20 fewer hours each week.* Houston published her first article about cybersecurity, “The Next Cyber Whiz Might Be an English Major” in CYBER, the journal of the Military Cyber Professionals Association in September 2020.
When Houston is not working to keep us safe, she writes poetry and is finalizing a book which focuses on her thoughts about the military, including living on the flight path of a Chinook helicopter, and also how she discovered letters from her father written while he was serving in Vietnam. Proving Ground will be her fourth published collection. Click here to read a few poems from her book.
Taking care of her fellow humans is at the heart of what Houston does. Since the lockdown, she has also been industriously sewing masks using a pattern called breathe-easy mask. After researching mask and filtration tests, she decided on “stretch chiffon” made of 90% polyester and 10% spandex.
As we move through 2021 with hope and confidence that the world will heal, remember to take good care of each other, wash your hands, and change those passwords.
Image: Courtesy Lynn Houston
*There are many places online where anyone can learn basic cybersecurity concepts for free: Cybrary, the Clark Center, the SANS Institute, and the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency.