by Erica Yee
Growing up, Deema Binmahi wanted to be a hacker like the ones she saw in movies. The recent alumna’s passion for computer security grew during her four years at Northeastern, even when the command line isn’t as exciting as Hollywood portrays it to be.
Northeastern appealed to her because the university had been one of four schools nationwide designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations by the National Security Agency. The College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS) has since added a BS in Cybersecurity.
Binmahi ’18, who studied computer science with a concentration in cyber operations, recently had the opportunity to impart the importance of information security as a speaker at SharkHack, a hackathon for women sponsored by Simmons College. At the March event, she taught the participants, mostly freshmen, an overview of the importance of information security and different types of attacks.
“I was interested in teaching people foundations of information security because I realized a lot of computer science students, we don’t know much about privacy or security in general,” Binmahi said. “When you learn about security, there are some things you can avoid with good programming practices.”
Her presentation included a demonstration of an SQL injection, in which an attacker uses a malicious input such that the web database discloses stored data.
“In real companies, big companies, they would lose a lot of money because of this,” Binmahi said.
No stranger to hackathons, Binmahi received the chance to speak at SharkHack after participating in many other events over the past few years. She attended her first hackathon, HackMIT, during her second year. Her positive experience of creating an app to find the closest working printer led her to seek out other opportunities.
“Going to hackathons really helped me a lot. I went as a participant and I mentored, and it’s really cool to see all different sides,” Binmahi said.
She previously mentored participants at MetroHacks, a New England hackathon for high school students. At MetroHacks, the high school participants level of computer science knowledge pleasantly surprised Binmahi.
“I remember one guy who was asking me a specific GitHub problem,” she recalled. “I thought they would ask me like, HTML, really basic stuff. But I think definitely the younger generation is more aware of coding, coming to college with some knowledge of coding.”
Whether for a hackathon project or a class assignment, Binmahi makes sure to implement security features where possible. It’s important for computer science students to not only know how to develop programs, but also to implement such features during the process so they’re not an afterthought.”A lot of people think when you say ‘security,’ it’s just one thing. It’s really huge: There’s web security, network reverse engineering, it’s a lot,” she said.
Security and privacy have been big buzzwords in the news recently, as companies and governments fall prey to breaches and attacks. Many of the general tips Binmahi offered during her SharkHack talk on how to protect yourself are useful for everyone, not just programmers – such as updating your operating system frequently and not using the same password multiple times.
“I definitely think everyone needs to learn at least some basics of networking and security,” she said. “Because no matter what job you get, definitely there’s a small aspect of security in it too.”