Future of Digital Security

Security for Self and Society: Insights from Lauren Buitta

By Lauren Buitta, Founder and CEO of Girl Security

Creating a more secure world is not just about building new technology; it is just as important to create a workforce that is informed and ready to take on the world’s next security threat. The Institute for Security and Technology (IST) is thrilled to connect with groups engaging with and preparing young generations for thriving in a tech-heavy society. We sat down with Lauren Buitta, Founder and CEO of Girl Security, to learn about her mentorship network for adolescent girls and the organization’s resources on careers in cybersecurity.

IST: Tell us about the Girl’s Guide to Election Security you recently released. How did the project come together?

Lauren: The Girl’s Guide to Election Security project was a collective effort. We first focused on election security in 2016 with the Girl Scouts (Greater Chicago/Northwest Indiana). I knew — like most — that disinformation and election security would not disappear after the 2016 election. I also knew the gendered and racist nature of disinformation would expand. Inspired by my own kids, who have all of these handy kits they’ve received from various family members, I wanted to create something similar for girls on disinformation and election security. 

Because of the pandemic, we decided to create a digital guide that is housed on a terrific and user-friendly platform called Thinkific. As is the case with all of our programming and content, we wanted to create a multi-disciplinary tool filled with micro-learning sessions; highlight women role models for girls and girl role models for women; incorporate an intersectional and trauma-informed approach, and make it look cool. It’s also a living project; we continue to add content as the field evolves. Because of the guide’s success and relevance, Girl Security will continue to create topical guides each year on emerging national security challenges.

IST: Why do you think it is important to engage young girls in discourse about disinformation?

Lauren: Our approach is informed by the need to connect girls’ personal security experiences to national security, as means of both providing an accessible framework but also valuing girls’ everyday lived experiences as part of a broader national security discourse and introducing career considerations in the national security field. 

Beginning each discussion with an exploration of personal security empowers girls to rewrite the national security narrative from a more current context. The timing could not be better. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, there was a palpable sense of fear: fear of the unknown, fear arising from uncertainty, and fear arising from a sense of vulnerability. What could an everyday citizen do to help? Citizens mobilized in critical and meaningful ways through volunteering, fundraising, and military service, among other contributions. Not since 9/11 has national security been so central to our public discourse as a result of information operations designed to sow fear and undermine U.S. democracy and national security. Threats arising from information warfare are diffuse and pervasive. While a terrorist attack affects the masses in profound ways, information operations place everyday citizens on the frontlines — particularly those who spend much of their time online. 

But beyond the national sphere, it is crucial to train girls in security for their personal well-being. Adolescent girls spend 8-10 hours online primarily on their phones each day. They are three times more likely than boys to be cyberbullied and are the most likely victims of misinformation. It is imperative that we equip girls with media literacy and disinformation training to empower them in their personal security. Additionally, girls often derive their self-esteem through four primary domains: home life, peers, academic competence, and personal security. Therefore, fortifying girls’ personal security domain is critical to their broader self-esteem index.

At Girl Security, we observe how girls are normalizing behaviors in a digital domain. This includes habits such as sharing mis-disinformation or laughing off explicit images in their DMs. We then consider how the normalization of these behaviors online may bleed into their perceptions in their physical domain. If their normalizing behaviors are representative of their peers, then, from a national security perspective, we have a big challenge on our hands to ensure all young people are provided adequate training to be able to cognitively separate these two domains, and cope with the effects of ever-blurring realities.

Girls are also taught to fear in order to survive. From a young age, girls are taught what to wear or what not to wear to “deter” certain physical threats, or told to walk on lit streets, avoid dark parking lots, carry car keys between their fingers, or avoid putting a drink down at a party, to name a few. In order to diminish fear and manage girls’ threat and risk perceptions, we must provide them with ready-to-use learning and training to confront challenges like disinformation and prepare for the next wave of information operations. This benefits their personal security and professional aptitudes. Every girl, regardless of her path, can benefit from developing what we call “a security lens”; a more balanced approach to girls’ empowerment that manages their risk perception and fear. Girls already have the aptitude and will to secure themselves.

Lastly, disinformation provides an opportunity to engage girls in national security and empower them in related careers in tech and cyber. I would note, however, that Girl Security employs a trauma-approach to all of our programming, and this is particularly critical. As an organization, as a nation, we cannot deploy media literacy and related programming that is not trauma-informed, or we risk perpetuating the evolving norms we recognize as potentially harmful to adolescent girls’ cognition, self-esteem, and personal security. Teens are still teens.

IST: What can families, and the general public, do to better train young people about staying safe online?

Lauren: My mom is a psychiatric nurse and both of my sisters are licensed clinical social workers, so I grew up with a lot of “active listening.” My answer for you is simple, but it’s the only answer I have: ask children, teens, and young adults about their experiences and just listen to them. They know more about what we’re talking about than we do. We, as practitioners, have the long lens, but they have the immediate insights. 

More specifically, we need to start engaging the next generations sooner in media literacy, disinformation, and national security conversations. There is a right and wrong way to engage in this discourse, but again, it goes back to asking questions. Kids will establish the baseline for us. They will share what they know, and recognize when we listen. Parents, caregivers, schools, community organizations, and other stakeholders must also be part of this effort. 

Finally, practitioners need to take kids’ lead and create accessible, localized, creative initiatives informed by their outputs. The adults must manage their own data-driven expectations or risk alienating a considerable percentage of youth, including girls. In our endeavor toward a renewed great power status, we’re “innovating” ourselves to the bench. There is value in the negative space, and we need to venture into it or risk failing to engage multiple generations.

IST: What factors should folks looking to work in youth empowerment be conscious of? 

Lauren: Young people — kids, teens, and young adults — have pressing concerns and challenges, particularly today. In 2013, 22 percent of all children under the age of 18 were living in poverty; in 2018, it fell to 18 percent, which is nearly 13 million kids. This number is likely to grow exponentially as a result of the pandemic. Over 40 kids have been killed by gun violence in my home city of Chicago just this year. I don’t think we can influence young people to care about these issues when their immediate personal security needs are unmet. 

Beyond this, I think young people should influence what opportunities we develop for them, to ensure we are not shouting into the void. We want to make sure we are giving them resources that are actually useful. This is how we came to develop the core of Girl Security: skill-building. Our job is to empower girls with the competencies they need to ensure that when they hit that new playing field, they will be prepared for myriad security environments and scenarios. We have a moral responsibility to the youth to endow them with these tools. 

Partnering with youth-focused organizations, as Girl Security and IST have done, is one step. Empowering young adults within their organizations to cultivate their innovation and leadership is another. Again, just engaging in active listening, particularly with girls, can provide as much mentoring to the adults as it does to the girls. Being empathetic to young people and their markedly different experiences is a small but important step in their eventual engagement.