Why Vermont's Nonprofits Should Be Thinking About Digital Security

May 17, 2016

Technology is evolving faster than we could have ever imagined, and with it new challenges regarding social etiquette, privacy and security.

Vermonters recently saw these problems hit home when Essex Town employees were scammed into sending e-mails that asked for personal data about workers and replied without verifying who sent that e-mail, and that caused a data breach. The town of Wilmington recently had its website infected by a virus.

On the more hopeful side of the coin, the growing digital society offers new opportunities for community involvement and shared growth.

Lucy Bernholz, a self-described "philanthropy wonk," is meeting all these issues head on.

Bernholz is a senior research scholar at Stanford University who studies digital civil society and works on using technology for social good among other things. She writes extensively on philanthropy, technology and policy on her blog, philanthropy2173.com, and she’s going to be in Vermont for a series of workshops this week about how nonprofit organizations can better secure their digital world.

On the digital vulnerability of nonprofits

"They tend to be less well resourced, and taking good care of your digital infrastructure takes two things: smarts and money. They've got plenty of the former and usually not so much of the latter. So they are vulnerable.

"[Nonprofits] tend to be less well resourced, and taking good care of your digital infrastructure takes two things: smarts and money. They've got plenty of the former and usually not so much of the latter." - Lucy Bernholz, Stanford University

"That's not the real reason, though, that I focus on nonprofits. The real reason is good old democracy. The nonprofit sector in the U.S. is really our embodiment of what the rest of the world calls civil society. It's this place outside of business and outside of government where we come together as people to do things that help others and that help our communities."

On how digital data for public benefit could be exploited

"There's the basic security hack ... just having this information stored in a place where someone who's looking to get it can easily get it. But the other thing is to realize that most of us, if you actually take a step back and think about what's most revealing about the things you as a person care about, it's not necessarily going to be what type of ice cream you like or, you know, what kind of shoes you wear … What's likely to actually give someone else a much better sense of who you are is, where do you volunteer? Where do you give your charitable dollars? With whom do you associate when you have free time to do things for your community? And, well, that's at the nonprofit."

On what a ‘digital civil society’ means

"Often when people hear the term civil society they think, 'Oh, she's talking about helping people be nicer to each other,' and I'm all for that, but then there is this other space. We sometimes call it the nonprofit sector or the independent sector, but it is deliberately designed to be a place where private people can come together, voluntarily, and do things that benefit other people.

"The most important thing that's lacking is actually any kind of private space ... where you are not being monitored."

"And the best way to think about what's at risk here is to realize that the roots of that space are found in this country in the First and Fourth Amendment. It's the right to peaceable assembly. It's the right to free expression. And there's an assumption that you can make these decisions of your own volition and privately. And those three rights are of a different nature in digital space, whether you're talking about on social media, or on network databases, or the way your text messages move back and forth."

On what’s missing in digital spaces right now

"The most important thing that's lacking is actually any kind of private space … where you are not being monitored by ... the corporations whose tools you're using to have whatever conversation you're having. So every time you have a conversation in a digital environment, all of it, there's a third party who's got that information – always a corporation.

"And then all of that exchange is also being monitored by the government. So if the fundamental premise is that this activity of non-profits happens outside of those realms, it literally doesn't exist in digital space, because we're playing in their house, if you will. We may well need and would all benefit from an environment that provides some protections for us in those spaces as they exist."

‘We need to invent this, because we don’t have it’

"When we talk about digital civil society we always say, 'Look, we need to invent this, because we don't have it.' The best way to protect somebody else's digital data in that environment is to not collect it. If you don't have it, then it's not at risk.

"So, for example, a lot of non-profits have been very excited to be able to use things like free online documents and spreadsheets that are stored in the cloud and are shared across organizations and this stuff comes that no direct financial cost to them. If you just upload to those systems all of the names of everyone who participates in your programs, with their address their email and their phone number, you have just given it away to other parties.

"But, if you collect that information and don't store it online, for one, or you encrypt it, for two, or you store it on your own servers and not in other people's houses, as I like to think about it, then you are providing the same degree of integrity to that data that you again provide to the money that you rely on to do your business in the first place. You're treating it with integrity toward your mission.

"And if your mission, for example, is helping vulnerable people in your community,  don't do it in such a way that you essentially make them more vulnerable."

Lucy Bernholz will be making three appearances in Vermont this week:

  • May 17: Burlington (sold out)
  • May 19: Montpelier; 12:00 - 4:30 at Vermont College of Fine Arts
  • May 20: Brattleboro; 12:00 - 4:30 at Marlboro College