New York University Abu Dhabi’s new director of cyber security is as concerned about preserving the environment as implementing safe online practices.
Growing up among the wild landscapes of Fujairah, Hoda Al Khzaimi developed an abiding love for the coastlines and mountains of her native emirate. And even though she spends most of her time in the capital, she still goes home to spearhead clean-up drives on the beaches around her family home in Fujairah.
“We have a whole group of people we reach out to on WhatsApp,” says Al Khzaimi. “On a Friday morning, after the fajr prayer, we set off – children, teenagers, adults – with bin bags and heavy-duty gloves, and spend hours making sure the shore is spotless. There is a need to further spread the word, among both Emiratis and expats.”
When she is not rallying the troops in her part-time role as environmental activist, Al Khzaimi, who took over the cyber-security department at NYUAD last year, also works at the university as a research assistant professor (engineering).
“I always was interested in mathematics and science in school,” she says. “In university, I spent some time doing medicine, but realised it was not my calling.
“Then I found out that UAE University was offering Information Security and I switched courses. That was that – I went on to obtain a degree in the subject and a PhD in cryptanalysis from Denmark University [Technical University of Denmark].”
Al Khzaimi learnt discipline and forbearance at the knees of her grandmother, a formidable matriarch who looked after her grandchildren with an iron fist.
“She was very strict,” says Al Khzaimi. “She wouldn’t let us watch television until we had finished our homework. My dad was like that, too. He was in the military and taught us how to fold our blankets army-style. If my mark in an examination was 99 out of 100, he’d want to know what happened to that one mark.”
The environment at home led Al Khzaimi to excel in academics and paved the way for her future choices. She now specialises in constructing and validating security hardware and software components. Her love for the subject, she says, stems from a natural curiosity about how things work.
“Every time I wanted more answers, a teacher would say there’s no need to learn this right now. But I would insist on knowing. Breaking down systems and building them up again – that’s what I like to do.
“You know, to promote inquisitive minds at an early age, it would be a good idea to allow pupils to learn about cyber-security during excursions to universities that offer the subject.”
Al Khzaimi’s top tips for safe online practices include mindfulness and taking ownership of one’s security and needs.
“Regardless of what you use to stay safe, whether you prefer to frequently change your passwords or choose to keep your social-media profiles private, be mindful in your digital space,” she says.
“For example, do not use a technology just because it is user-friendly and popular. You must check if the platform you have chosen might compromise your security. A good example is online banking. We have seen the possibilities to trick online image-recognition systems, allowing hackers to potentially gain access to confidential financial data.
“Also, remember that knowledge is power. Being a user in this day and age is not the same as it was a few years ago. You must have a wide knowledge of the digital platforms you’re utilising. Cyber security is a science – know how it is built and study how your privacy could be breached. Be involved – read, attend workshops and sign up for cyber-security conferences.”
Al Khzaimi is immensely proud of the strides the UAE has made in empowering its women.
“In the UAE, women have always been encouraged to seek knowledge and contribute to the direct welfare of the community,” she says, pointing out that lots of Emirati women choose careers in STEM fields.
“And cyber-security is a reflection of that – it is a field that fuses science, engineering, technology and mathematics. Now, it includes arts as well [STEAM]. The main reason, in my opinion, why women take to it, is that this field offers constant technical challenges that interest their minds.”
Whenever possible, Al Khzaimi heads to Fujairah, to rest at home. She likes spending her time bouldering in the mountains and walking among the nakhl (palm trees).
“It’s how I relax,” she says. “But it concerns me that Fujairah is developing at such a fast pace. I hope the coastlines remain pristine, the mountains untouched. We need to be more mindful of our environment and do whatever we can to preserve it.”
What are you reading right now?
So many titles. On a technical level, Secure Integrated Circuits and Systems. For a leisure read, The Intel Trinity, Mission to Mars and Animate Earth.
Which book would you say has transformed you?
It would be fair to say that if there is any transformation in my life it should be credited to the whole list of books that I have read in the past. It is better not to choose.
Which travel destinations inspire you the most?
The UAE, Iceland and Antarctica.
What is your favourite outdoor spot in the UAE?
I would say the sea and mountains, and the desert at night. If we pass any legacy to the next generation it should be cleaner air and a well-preserved environment.
What is your go-to place for comfort food in the UAE?
The dining table at my home in Fujairah.
What are your creative pursuits?
Restructuring things – situations, material, spaces, projects – and making them pleasantly and positively unrecognisable. Even better if I get to work with my hands.
What do you do to unwind?
Help someone, pray, run, bike, hike, climb, read – and repeat.
What are your biggest goals for 2017?
You will know it when it is achieved. Let my actions speak louder than any words.