“Empathy, today, is a critical component of cybersecurity”

Camille Francois is an expert in cyber conflict. As Graphika’s chief innovation officer, she helps major companies identify and fight online disinformation. Her team was a big part of uncovering the extent of Russian influence during the 2016 election. But surprisingly, Camille says it’s not just her technical skills that give her an edge…

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

You really have to have an empathic heart to understand the types of threats and how they evolve.

Laurie Segall: You have this extraordinarily human quality about you…And I think that might be kind of your competitive edge when it comes to what you do for your day job?

Camille Francois: Yeah. You know, I think people don’t realize that empathy today is a critical component of cybersecurity. A lot of people have thought in order to do cybersecurity right, you need to be really good at like managing tubes, breaking tubes, managing networks. I think today, we realize that if you want to secure systems, secure conversations, secure the way we live online, you really have to have an empathic heart to understand the types of threats and how they evolve.

Laurie Segall: …Just so people know, what is your day to day? I just envision you in an office fighting troll farms online and making sure democracy isn’t ruined. But I don’t know what that actually looks like…

Camille Francois: I know, it’s so hard to say.

Laurie Segall: I know big tech companies call on you to help with these different campaigns and you’ve had some pretty high profile reports that have helped us understand the extent of Russian influence, but what does your day to day look like?

Camille Francois: Yeah. Well first, I don’t do this by myself. I’m very lucky that I get to manage a really fantastic team. People coming from different types of backgrounds. And so together we analyze online conversations and we look for markers that they are being manipulated. Now what’s really fun in 2020 is, we tend to think when conversations are manipulated, it’s either trolls or bots or Russians. But today, there’s quite a big diversity of actors and ways in which people manipulate public conversations. And so we investigate because we want to be able to have more people do that and to have a public that’s better informed and better equipped to tackle these threats. We also build tools to make that easier, so we have an R and D lab. They just do scientific research on how we can better detect patterns of manipulation of online conversations.

Laurie Segall: …You said something that I thought was really interesting, you said this work is two parts technology and one part sociology.

Camille Francois: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: What did you mean by that?

Camille Francois: A lot of that is really about understanding socio-technical systems. So when you think about information operation, it’s not really like hacking, right? It’s not looking for a technical vulnerability, it’s looking for a social vulnerability. It’s looking for what’s going to play well into a society’s division. What’s going to fall in between two rules that a platform has and that’s going to make them not catch me. A lot of this is really playing with social systems as much as it is playing with technical systems.