More and more women enter cybersecurity as a second career. But for Aidan Neighbor, that transition from retail also propelled her into a market with some of the most stringent standards for protecting networks and data.
“I had experience with penetration testing and digital forensics and was one of the few students SAIC interviewed that had that on the resume,” Neighbor recalled of her initial conversations with the defense contracting giant.
Five years into her job as cyberspace operations principal at SAIC, Neighbor is indeed a member of the company’s penetration testing team, serving as the final line of backup to ensure an organization’s defenses are complete. But she’s also heading a team focused on research and development for the war fighter — enabling cyber situational awareness across a range of data types to provide a complete picture of internal and external activity. That includes processing internal network data, open source vulnerability data, social media sentiment and adversarial activity across the open internet. She is also combining cyber and electromagnetic spectrum data to provide more rapid situation awareness for forward echelons in the military.
“Right now my focus is tactical cyber situational awareness — bringing cyber situational awareness to the edge. We'll be deploying analytics and a mapping program with automation built in — speeding up the information that you'll be getting. Right now, some of that's a very manual process where you're reliant on a feed to get to you, potentially 12 hours later.
As she puts it, cyber situational awareness is a process of curating data under the hood, making sure it’s quality, and applying data fusion methods to understand the full scope of the cyber landscape.
“Oftentimes we run into the issue where operators have information overload, which leads to decision paralysis,” Neighbor said. “So part of this project is looking at, if I'm going to deliver a tool or a data feed or visualization to an end user, I'm going to deliver what they need to see. We’re reducing all that noise.”
And the advantage of focusing on R&D is the ability to dig into potential. Neighbor and her team has been evaluating the potential role of machine learning in the situational awareness projects.
“We hear everybody talk about AI — like it’s the new arms race,” Neighbor said. But I think sometimes there's some misunderstanding of what AI is; they're not silver-bullet systems. They can be broken. It is not going to solve all of our problems. But I would like to understand how it could be applied in a relevant manner.”