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Jackie Singh

Jackie Singh

SMC Speaker Protects Privacy from ‘Surveillance Capitalism’

Published on December 13, 2022 - 11 a.m.

Jackie Singh, lead incident response and threat analyst for the 2020 Biden-Harris presidential campaign, started as a hacker. In a Zoom call Dec. 8 with Assistant Professor Andrew Churchill’s Southwestern Michigan College network security class, she shared a “war story” about what it felt like to become a target herself.

For other disciplines listening in two rooms of the Barbara Wood Building, Singh discussed cybersecurity’s intersection with business, accounting, political science and criminal justice.

“I applied through the front door with no special connections,” she said of the campaign, “the most stressful job of my career. But I’d do it again, given the opportunity. I tweeted about it to inspire girls and women to reach for their dreams and was doxed on Twitter, even though I’m careful with my internet presence, and am used to working with journalists and being quoted and photographed for major publications about security privacy matters. None of that prepared me for election conspiracy theorists coming after me.”

Doxing reveals information about someone online, such as their home address, workplace, phone, financial and other personal information without the victim’s permission.

“If you’ve got a phone in your pocket, you’re being surveilled,” Singh said. “You don’t necessarily know who has access to your data. The act of creating data leads us to want to do other things with it. That’s key to cybersecurity, which is a young field. I did one project identifying 18,000 surveillance cameras in the five (New York) boroughs publicly accessible via the internet. There’s an iceberg of surveillance technologies putting us in little sales boxes, violating our privacy, but we can only see ones at the top.”

Singh advocates a national privacy law to counter “surveillance capitalism.” She has served as director of technology and operations at STOP, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

“We’re due for a major reckoning” over laws such as the Patriot Act broadening law-enforcement powers to prevent terrorist attacks.

“We’ve sacrificed privacy. Companies turn it into data they pass around. Third-party apps take data from our phones. We don’t know what happens to it.”

Singh, dividing her time between New York and Puerto Rico, has experience working for Mandiant, FireEye and McAfee. The mother of three was born in NYC to naturalized citizens from India and the Dominican Republic. The Iraq war veteran grew up in NYC, Miami and Paris.

“I don’t list labels to play identity politics,” Singh said, “but because the complexity of what we bring to the table matters to the work. Diversity of thought improves the work. So much of what we do in tech and security are team sports.

“There’s the image of the solitary hacker in a hoodie, hunched over his keyboard. But nearly anything worth doing in this business is accomplished by a team.”

After her parents divorced, she moved to France with her mother, exploring Minitel, an early videotex online service accessible through telephone lines.

At 11, her father gave her a desktop computer, which led her to IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. “I was that weird 14-year-old at hacker meet-ups with grown men,” Singh said. “We made it a game to find Hackers Quarterly at Barnes and Noble because it was usually hidden behind something else. And we’d dumpster dive to find discarded hardware and software we could do something with. I was kicked out of every school my mother enrolled me in until I withdrew at 16. I spent my time at the hacker halfway house in Brooklyn, enraptured by this raw power behind our fingertips at a terminal.”

“My story so far was total academic failure, but with an intense interest in computing,” she said. “We were not wealthy. We moved to France because someone offered her a job in Paris. I was raised by Spanish-speaking grandparents and a divorced single mom (who earned a master’s degree). Her lack of supervision was a necessity because she had to work. Lean in to things that make you rush to get out of bed. We each have unique combinations of traits, interests and ambitions and must work together to steer each other to good things that make the world better.”

Singh’s springboard was joining the military at 17 in the wake of 9/11.

“I was trained to work on weapons systems and given a security clearance,” she said. “The Army steered me down a moral path and indoctrinated me with ethics, as opposed to using my skills in ways detrimental to society.

“Cybersecurity professionals have jobs because of the massive proliferation of fraud and crime affecting every sector. Over time, as attribution capabilities improve, we can dig through data and determine who did what. Once you’re established, you’ll be able to choose where you want to go, with endless opportunities to do good.”

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