When we click ‘accept’ on the default security settings of a new app, or lazily use the same password for multiple online accounts, how aware are we of the security risks we take daily with our online behaviour?
For cybersecurity expert Hannah Tufts, awareness is key to maintaining our security, not to mention our mental health, in our online lives. Helping young people to take control rather than being controlled by the constant temptations of their electronic devices has become her professional focus.
“It’s about strengthening what you have by letting go of what doesn’t serve you,” she explains, balancing a coffee, her mobile and an enthusiastic dachshund named Chorizo as we walk through Barcelona’s El Born neighbourhood where she lives.
Originally from the UK, the petite, blonde 30-year-old doesn’t fit the tech entrepreneur stereotype – she’s female for a start. She tells me that when she first started attending cybersecurity conferences she took delight in surprising older male delegates with her insights into the industry: “They probably thought I was the admin girl,” she says, laughing.
Hannah found her way into the cybersecurity world almost by accident. Having studied English and American literature at university in the UK she assumed she would end up in journalism: “I thought I would head straight for London and work for something glossy,” she says with a rueful laugh.
But such opportunities were scarce in the years following the financial crash, and instead she found herself working for a small Cambridgeshire firm which specialised in cybersecurity awareness programmes. Somewhat to her own surprise, she took to it immediately: “I developed a sense of purpose in that industry because we were working to change the world and really have an impact on society. Protecting ourselves and our information was becoming more and more important to everyone,” she says.
Hannah’s skill was in finding a way to communicate this dry and technical subject both within organisations and to consumers in a way that was accessible and appealing. Similar roles followed until the summer of 2016 when she had the opportunity to relocate to Barcelona – a city she loved and had visited often.
Over the last decade, Barcelona has been developing its reputation as a centre for tech and innovation – Business Insider recently ranked it fourth in Europe as a start-up and innovation hub. When Hannah found a data security start-up that needed help with its communications and brand strategy it seemed like the perfect fit and she leapt at the chance.
But like many foreigners who take a job in a Spanish company, she was surprised by the hierarchical and inflexible working culture: “I was expecting a flat organisational structure and an accessible management team, but the company wasn’t quite ready to adopt an internal culture that matched up to its forward-thinking product offering. I was at a disadvantage with rudimentary Spanish and zero Catalan, and I lost sight of my confidence and past achievements while battling with an all-male leadership team. My desire for progression was all but extinguished. For me that wasn’t what being in a start-up was supposed to be about,” she says.
Feeling frustrated and realising she was getting nowhere, Hannah stepped back to reflect on her next move. Following the recommendation of a friend she joined the Barcelona Professional Women’s Network (PWN).
“It was a godsend,” she tells me: “Having been in such male-dominated environments I felt like I needed the support of other women and to hear their stories of how they progressed and what they’d been through. It inspired me to start fighting my corner and opened my eyes to the wide variety of roles that are available here in Barcelona – if you know where to look.”
Hannah’s practice of mindfulness around this time made her think about how the same principles – being present and aware – relate to our use of technology. She believes we have to learn to distinguish between the benefits that technology brings to our lives, and the unconscious behaviours that have an impact on our security and even our mental wellbeing.
“We are served up default settings which we don’t take the time to adjust. We post things without thinking about the consequences. Taking a mindful approach is the key to taking control of our online lives,” she says. It was something of a personal and professional epiphany, leading to a new direction and a new business venture, which she named Exhale.
Hannah thinks the message about taking a mindful approach to technology is especially relevant for teenagers, who are perpetually glued to their phones. Parents and teachers don’t always feel equipped to provide the guidance young people need to help them manage their online reputation, use social media safely, and protect their personal information. To fill this gap, Exhale has begun a collaboration with Benjamin Franklin International School to deliver workshops to students, parents and teachers.
“For me it’s not about preaching the rules and the do’s and don’ts and taking the technology away, but instead making sure we use it for good,” she explains. She hopes this will be the first of many such collaborations with schools.
Letting go of what didn’t serve her seems to have worked for Hannah. She smiles as she tells me despite a difficult start in Barcelona, she now feels like she’s got her voice back.
You can contact Hannah via her business Exhale