A Cybersecurity Expert Joins the "Super Brains"

September 2019
Terri Phillips
Terri Phillips in her office

"I love information security," Terri Phillips says. "Cybersecurity, computer security—all the iterations it's gone through. I find it fascinating because I like the art and the science of it—the fact that it's not just about technology. There are policy, process, and people issues to consider as well."

Her passion for cybersecurity dates from before Phillips joined MITRE in 2004, but it's blossomed since.

"I became interested in cybersecurity in a prior job, where I was working with public key infrastructure [or PKI, which supports secure messaging], digital signatures, and biometrics," she says. Since coming to MITRE, she's worked with various technologies, starting with developing a testing protocol for electronic passports for MITRE's Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sponsor. 

Her experience in biometrics proved to be of great value to both MITRE and DHS. She was asked to help DHS expand its biometrics capabilities. 

"DHS, as a law enforcement agency, has a long background using fingerprint recognition to both authenticate people and to determine if they're on a criminal or watch list. DHS wanted to expand that to other biometric modalities, which I worked on."

More recently, Phillips' work in support of DHS has been in mobile security technologies. 

The Intangible and Tangible Values of Her Work

"There's an intangible value in helping the government identify the threats and vulnerabilities in using mobile devices and the apps that reside on those devices, particularly the ones that we download," she says. "We need to identify the vulnerabilities and threats across the whole ecosystem—from the app developers and mobile device and operating system vendors to the network operators—and the impact to government networks and information."

On the tangible side, her team played a leading role in producing the DHS Study on Mobile Device Securityas required by Congress. The paper included recommendations for the secure use of mobile devices by government staff.

Phillips is still working in mobile security, but in a new area: examining the security impacts of the federal government's expanded use of mobile networks. This ecosystem includes commercial cellular providers, equipment vendors, and the core network where everything is managed.

"As the new generation of technology comes along, and so much becomes virtualized, what are the vulnerabilities there? The government needs to understand all this, and then work with vendors and industry to address or mitigate the vulnerabilities."

Another intangible value of her work, she says, "is the impact of what MITRE does, the fact that we really do work on national security challenges. You're doing valuable and meaningful work, to help protect the country and its people."

A Tale of "Super Brains" and the Right Balance

What drew Phillips to MITRE in the first place?

"MITRE had this reputation as an academic institution of the super brains," she says with a peal of laughter. "It seemed like you had to be top-notch in your field to get there. So the opportunity to be considered for something here was astounding. I said to myself, 'Really? Would they hire me? I don't have a PhD.'"

But given her skill set, it's not surprising she fit right in. "I like being at MITRE because of all the smart people I get to work with—the fact that we are such a collaborative organization. You go reach out to wherever you need to find experts, which benefits our government sponsors. It truly helps make the nation and the world safer."

Another reason she enjoys working at MITRE is the work-life balance, despite her responsibilities as both a project lead and a group lead.

"I liked the work I did before I came to MITRE, but the work-life balance was tipped in the wrong direction. I found the right balance here."

—by Jim Chido

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