Phyllis Schneck received an early introduction to the world of technology which now shapes her day-to-day duties and challenges. Recently appointed the head cyber security official for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Schneck believes that her father played a huge role in laying the groundwork for her distinguished career.
“My father taught me about computers since the time of age three,” Schneck says.
The former CTO for the global public sector division at McAfee adds that although women are “still outnumbered” in the industry, her main focus has been in mentoring young girls who can help close the gender gap.
“I think cyber security is a great place for young girls to learn technology,” Schneck says. Among her many achievements, she counts “being a good aunt” to her niece as her biggest triumph.
Occupation: deputy undersecretary for cyber security for the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), U.S. Department of Homeland Security
College: Georgia Tech, Ph.D. computer science
Accomplishments: Served as vice chair of the NIST Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board. Co-founded the Georgia Tech Information Security Center and the Georgia Electronic Commerce Association's Working Group on Information Security. Currently sits on the advisory board of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Computer Science.
In her expansive security career, however, Schneck takes a page from her time at McAfee, where she was most proud of her work in helming the development of its global intelligence system, which was launched in 2005. Befitting of her current role, one of her duties at McAfee was guiding the company's cultivation of products and services for industrial control system security.
Schneck takes a level-headed approach to how the DHS should address potential attacks against critical infrastructure.
For her, it's essential to view the responsibility as one supported by a sprawling ecosystem, where the public and private sector have developed a sense of trust and collaboration.
“We don't believe in fear,” Schneck says. “We believe in science and understanding. It's almost like crowdsourcing, where we can put a lot of different types of perspectives and information together.”
She hopes to neutralize some of the information about security distributed to the masses that concentrates on the fear factor, like “hackers and grids going out,” she says.
Instead, she believes it's more impactful to determine how the agency can improve the country's resilience against attacks.
“We want to make sure our infrastructure can bounce back,” Schneck says.
Prior to joining DHS, Schneck took on numerous roles to enhance the country's readiness. For one, she has served as vice chair of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board. NIST, a federal agency that was founded in 1901, is considered one of the country's oldest physical science laboratories. Presently, the agency has taken an integral role in supporting President Obama's “Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity” executive order, which was issued in February.
In October, NIST introduced a preliminary cyber security framework as guidance for companies working to prevent attacks that could interrupt essential services or processes within the country, like electricity, water management, gas and oil production or work within the financial services sector.
Schneck's work in bringing the public and private sector together was also carried out through her role as working group chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Cybersecurity, which advises President Obama.
Her efforts in support of private sector and government collaboration to stave off critical infrastructure threats and cyber crime further evolved in her eight years as chair of the National Board of Directors of the FBI's InfraGard program. As founding president of InfraGard Atlanta, Schneck grew the program from 2,000 to more than 30,000 members nationwide.
She gained expert knowledge in the private sector as the vice president of corporate strategy at SecureWorks, and founder and CEO of Avalon Communications, which has since been acquired by SecureWorks.
Schneck is also a presence on campus. Her work in academia spans from early efforts at her alma mater Georgia Tech, where she co-founded the school's information security center, to Johns Hopkins University, where she maintains a seat on the department of computer science's advisory board. She was also named the Loyola University Maryland David D. Lattanze Center 2012 Executive of the Year.
Having now stepped into a relatively new position at DHS, which was created in 2011, she succeeds Mark Weatherford, the former deputy under secretary for cyber security, who held the title for about a year-and-a-half before resigning. Bruce McConnell took over the role as an interim replacement prior to Schneck's appointment.
Suzanne Spaulding, deputy undersecretary for DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate, says that since her arrival, Schneck has “hit the ground running.” Schneck reports to Spaulding, who took on her role about two years ago.
Spaulding says an integral part of Schneck's role has been keeping the lines of communication open between the public and private sector – a task fitting the former McAfee CTO.
In her short time at DHS, Schneck has served as a mouthpiece in Washington, and in other parts of the country, so that critical infrastructure operators feel comfortable working with the government, as encouraged by Obama's executive order and NIST's cyber security framework. “Her background prepares her beautifully for this role,” Spaulding says. “We really are about supporting critical infrastructure owners and operators, since about 85 percent of our critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector.”
Schneck is well aware of how the “private sector thinks,” Spaulding explained, which “gives her credibility.”
Going forward, Schneck's says her central goal will be to strengthen the synergy between the corporate world and the government to widen DHS' understanding of, and ability to prevent and respond to, evolving threats against the nation.
For her, helping DHS strike the right balance between citizen privacy and security is key to successfully fulfilling her role.
“My top priority will be building trust between DHS and the private sector,” Schneck says.