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Using security skills for charitable cause

May 13, 20136 mins
CareersIT LeadershipTechnology Industry

Inspiring stories of two security professionals who use their skills to help needy organizations all over the world

Back in 2007 Johnny Long came to a fork in the road. An accomplished IT security pro with 13 years working at one of the big names, he had a great career and family, but he didn’t feel fulfilled. And he had no idea why not.

The wheels began to turn when his wife came home from a Christian mission in Uganda later that year. She showed him video and pictures she had taken of African children, many of them orphans, laughing and dancing despite their extreme poverty.

“I had done everything there was to do in my career but I was still miserable,” says Long. “had to figure out what those kids had that I didn’t.”

For a year or so, Long made two-week trips to work in Uganda but continued at his job at CSC in Virginia. He soon found that wasn’t enough. So, he and his wife made the ultimate commitment: They sold their house, quit their jobs and moved the kids to Uganda, offering help sorting out computer problems.

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As Long soon discovered, computer viruses and security holes were the most pressing problem he would encounter. Thankfully for local residents, Long’s skills matched beautifully with their needs. Now, he is head of a charitable organization he founded, Hackers for Charity, which pairs up people with IT security skills (among others) with charitable groups that need help.

Not everyone uproots the family and moves to another continent, but other IT security professionals like Long have made helping those in need an adjunct to their professional lives, if not its center. As you’ll read, the need is great and there are many ways to get involved.

A culture of ‘sharing’

For Long, it quickly became evident that the Ugandans he encountered needed much help with technology.

“They live in mud huts. I didn’t even think about computers being there,” he says. But, as it turns out, computers and smartphones are crucial for both charitable organizations operating in Africa as well as the citizens.

“The non-profits have to keep in touch with the U.S. and Europe because thats where their donors are,” says Long. Any loss of connectivity — which was a routine part of life — meant their fragile sources of funding and jobs were in jeopardy.

“They dont know where the money is, they don’t know if they can feed kids. They dont know if money has been wired, if they can sponsor a new kid. That’s where this whole thing started,” he says.

Unfortunately, computer viruses are a notorious problem in Africa, along with pirated software and slow Internet speeds.

[See also: Women leaders in security]

“Computer viruses are rampant in Africa,” says Long. “It has to do with the mentality of growing up in a village. If your neighbor has extra corn flour, they share it with you. Sharing is the culture. It’s part of who they are.”

When it comes to technology, the attitude is the same, he says. Pirated software is sharing. People often share applications and files on Flash drives that are infested with viruses.

“We see tons of machines that are obliterated because of viruses,” says Long.

Long also helps detect and prevent cyber crimes such as identity fraud, insider and outsider threats. In addition to doing some consulting for the government and banks, he also teaches residents sought-after security skills like penetration testing.

“You have to teach them offensive skills and trust they will use them for good,” says Long.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know who will stay on the side of the good guys. Because of the dire economic climate, someone can come under pressure to use his new chops for personal financial gain. Long does not want to see that happen so he chooses his students carefully.

The early years getting Hackers for Charity off the ground were not easy. Long’s family survived off donations from other computer people who believed in what they were doing as well as security consulting gigs, which he believes dissipated his focus. Now, the organization is 100% donor funded. And Long’s conviction he is doing the right thing is solid.

“Inherently, we all understand what it means to be successful, though everyone has an idea of what success is. Fulfillment is different. You don’t always see that in the workplace. Fulfillment comes when you step out and use your skills to help someone do something they could not do any other way,” he says. Long’s group constantly needs more security professionals to volunteer to help (see sidebar for how to get involved).

“You dont have to go to Uganda to get connected. There is stuff right in your neighborhood that needs doing. Often, you don’t even have to leave your keyboard,” he says.

An opportunity to learn tech

For Chris Sanders, the impetus to help came from his upbringing in Mayfield, Kentucky, a rural area. Teachers at his high school did not teach or even have technology. There were no scholarships for kids who wanted to work in information technology. There weren’t even any books on technology that he could read at the local library. It was an isolating experience for Sanders, who has been out of high school a decade.

To help the situation, Sanders created the Rural Technology Fund, which raises money to fund scholarships to two-year and four-year colleges for high school seniors in rural areas. He has awarded about a dozen kids scholarships of about $5,000 so far. To date, much of the funding comes from sales of Sanders’ technical books, including “Practical Packet Analysis.”

An adjunct to the fundraising for scholarships, Sanders’ group also collected used or new technical books.

“Many of these books are still relevant,” he says.

The Rural Technology Fund collects the books and Sanders sends them to rural libraries and high school libraries. He has sent 500 books across five states to date.

Sanders also buys so-called Raspberry Pi computers for schools. These are chips costing roughly $35 that run Linux and create a fully functioning computer by plugging in a monitor and a keyboard. The Rural Technology Fund has partnered with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to buy these devices for schools. The kits includes the device, the necessary cables and a QuickStart card to learn how to do basic programming and information security. Donors can buy as few as one or as many as 1,000. The Rural Technology Fund is creating a portal on its web site for this type of donation.

The good news, says Sanders: “The information security community is small and tightly knit.” He spreads the word among his colleagues at In Guardians, an information security consulting firm.

“Coming from one of those rural schools. I knew I wanted to pursue technology as a career,” says Sanders. “I owe my success to a few teachers who wanted me to succeed. I wanted to do something like this to help get kids who are interested in technology.”