Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nadia Alter of Quad9 Is Helping To Change Our World

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It’s okay to be an introvert and a leader. Interacting with people I don’t know well takes a toll on me. I never realised why and pushed myself very hard to be social without taking enough alone time in between meetings or events. Now, I value my alone time and focus on creating meaningful interactions without putting pressure on myself to be “on” all the time.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nadia Alter, CEO of Quad9. Nadia works at the intersection of climate change, cybersecurity, and digital citizenship. Recognized as a leading voice on social equality and climate change, Nadia focuses on developing programs and partnerships in three strategic areas: improving the safety of vulnerable populations, especially hospitals and the elderly; addressing effects on GDP; and lowering the carbon footprint of the internet at a global infrastructure level.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us what brought you to your work at the intersection of global citizenship and cybersecurity?

It started towards the end of my Engineering degree program As I prepared to transition to a career, I began to look at the bigger picture: The impacts of our technological choices on local social dynamics, economic systems, geopolitics, and planetary systems.

There was, and still is, a disconnect between perspectives and priorities. Inspired to take action, I co-founded an organization to bridge the gap: Edgeryders, a non-profit social enterprise. Our initial objective was to discover new connections between issues and struggles on a climate-altered planet. We collected the lived experience of people from very different walks of life around the globe and built technology to connect this information to collective intelligence. Our research resulted in new insights into how technology can support, not undermine, resilience and well-being for everyone.

Edgeryders developed in parallel with significant global events that impacted our research. Sweden introduced a blanket surveillance law. Tahrir Square saw a revolution and Occupy Wall Street shook up the banking industry. In Europe, the ACTA negotiations brought confusion and outrage. Dr. Marie Moe exposed the public safety concerns of medical devices, and a London police officer demonstrated how easy it was to infiltrate and influence grassroots movements.

These events shaped my view of society as a massive network through which information and resources flow to different parts of the system. Wherever there are social, political, or ecological crises, there is a structural gap in the network. If you want to fix the problem, you have to build bridges. These bridges rest on two foundations: freedom to access information and people we need to make wise choices; and freedom to enact our choices without manipulation or coercion. In other words, privacy and cybersecurity.

If we want to fix many social, environmental, and economic issues, we must start by building and protecting core internet infrastructure that protects our fundamental ability to find information safely by not giving anyone the technical means to spy on or attack us online.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading Quad9?

I began my tenure head-first into the ongoing court case with Sony in Germany. While the fundamental case is focused on copyright issues, to methis is about something much bigger. It’s about freedom and sovereignty.

Quad9 is a small non-profit that provides vital, free services to protect vulnerable people from spying and cybercriminals. Although this blocking applies only to Quad9’s services located in Germany, by bringing this court case to fruition, Sony Music — and those who may eventually follow — appear to be pushing the idea that they are above and beyond the principles of freedom, decentralisation, and proportionality.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made a few problematic assumptions based on cultural differences, as our team is dispersed across two continents.

First, I underestimated the lack of stability of Silicon Valley culture and the reassurance I would need to provide staff members to ensure their value. Why would I let brilliant people go? We need talented people more than ever to manage the breakneck speed at which our user base is growing.

Second, in my communication, I assumed that the best thing I could do was only step in if I felt I had something critical to contribute. I come from a culture where “silence is golden’’ — the less you say, the better. I was surprised to learn others were highly seeking my input and approval. People wanted to get to know me and worried when I appeared distant. However, I kept my distance because I wanted them to understand that their new boss would respect them as capable, self-responsible adults. The cultural differences became apparent quickly.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Tens of millions of users worldwide rely on us to protect them from cybercriminals every day, free of charge. They trust Quad9 because we protect their privacy and have no commercial interest in collecting or selling their data. For many of these users, Quad9 is the difference between high-quality protection for free or no protection at all. Think about what this means; the impact on tens of millions of individuals and the communities and organizations in which they are embedded.

I’d say that is making a significant social impact.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Well, Quad9 doesn’t collect data about individuals. But sometimes people want to tell us their stories. An ISP in Kenya was dealing with an onslaught of attacks, and their IP address was getting blocked. They switched to Quad9 and saw a significant overnight decrease in attacks. And that is just one person’s story, but our service made a positive impact on that person, and by extension, all the people and businesses that rely on them. It’s a ripple effect.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, when we speak about privacy, we mean making it safe to look for things online. Privacy protects anyone on the internet, from politicians to civil rights activists to the grandparents living down the street. It prevents criminals from being able to find out where you live, or use your online activity to map your habits so they can rob your home. It stops insurance companies from using data they have collected about you online to determine how much they will charge you.

Second, I would love to see more organizations invest resources into non-profit organizations (like Quad9) that offer high-quality, blanket protection to entire populations without any conflict of interest or commercial incentives. Supporting these organizations with grants and sponsorship is cost-saving. As our world becomes hyper-connected, the potential damage caused to individuals, businesses, and the economy at large will only continue to grow. However, if we invest resources to protect the most vulnerable, this will have the ripple effect of protecting everyone.

Third, we need legislation that holds large corporations accountable when they fail to provide adequate cybersecurity and privacy support to their end users. Many corporations put the burden on individual users to ensure their devices are secure, rather than taking additional measures to protect user data, which is unrealistic and unsustainable for the population at large. The bottom line is: if a corporation provides a service, they should also be accountable to provide reasonable assurance of digital privacy and security to those who use the service.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Good leadership maximizes the freedom and well-being of the individual and the society around her through effective coordination of distributed efforts toward shared goals. In a hyperconnected world, the organisation is an administrative entity only, in practice collaboration is peer to peer across organisational boundaries. How many organisations rely on opensource software? How much of that software was produced by people working in one company only?

Photo Credit Mask to Artist Pierre-Louis Graizon

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Don’t be intimidated by those that think they know more. There were a number of times early on that I allowed others to lord their professional experience or network access over me and my colleagues in general. Many times, these experiences were not relevant to our strategy or concerns because these individuals operated in fundamentally different realities.

Previous generations did not enter the labour market in the immediate aftermath of the largest financial crisis in living memory. They were not under constant surveillance, with little separation between spaces for social and professional interaction. They did not have to contend with the reality of preparing for planetary ecosystems collapse.

I had to learn to be confident in my own intuition and decisions, even when they seemed to go against the grain or were questioned by others who seemed more more experienced or connected.

It’s okay to be an introvert and a leader. Interacting with people I don’t know well takes a toll on me. I never realised why and pushed myself very hard to be social without taking enough alone time in between meetings or events. Now, I value my alone time and focus on creating meaningful interactions without putting pressure on myself to be “on” all the time.
Don’t speak; write. Verbal communication is exceptionally high bandwidth because it is easy for the speaker but potentially taxing for the listener. It puts the weight on the recipient to remember, parse, and structure the speaker’s words. And it creates problematic dynamics; In meetings or discussions, speakers can beat others into submission by the sheer volume of speech.

If everyone writes, your team moves into intentional, thoughtful interaction. This has the added benefits of documentation and transparency. Most importantly, everyone has their say, and leaders can tell who knows what they are talking about and ensure they are acknowledged accordingly. Plus, it’s harder to get away with bad behavior toward colleagues. For women and people of color in the workplace, this can be a life-changer.

You are not responsible for the emotions of others. Often, women end up doing unpaid emotional labour at work. Taking on the additional, unpaid, work of dealing with other peoples’ psychosocial issues. Like mental or emotional health problems. I encourage anyone that feels personal or professional strain to seek help when they feel they need it.

Keep your impostor syndrome under control. It’s an ongoing challenge. I still struggle with it, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who believe in and encourage me. Also, a personal appetite for adventure and risk helps — it’s partly fun because it’s scary.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to see more people understand and fight for Substantial Freedom for all. This means two things. The first is to understand that none of us are truly free unless everyone is free. Every time someone else’s fundamental rights are violated, you might be next.

The second is to that substantial freedom comes with duty of care for the wellbeing of our most vulnerable and marginalised. Some interpret this as “charity” or “noblesse oblige”. But society is a complex adaptive system, with many interdependencies that are invisible until something goes wrong. So we have to keep all components healthy. It is why we should be protective of those outliers who make us uncomfortable or see the world from a different perspective. Be they environmental activists, social justice advocates, artists or whistleblowers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When we are drowning in information, the artist’s work is to make things visible.

I interpret this as directing and harnessing collective intelligence to identify hidden connections between seemingly unrelated issues and struggles. Turning conversations into beautiful, intuitive visualizations that make the whole emerge from the parts. It has shaped my understanding of security as an outcome of many choices and interactions between many individuals and their environment, not a “thing.” The same applies to social justice, respect for human rights, and climate justice. This is why supporting the arts is as valuable to ensuring security as is putting money into functioning social insurance (what Americans call “benefits”).

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Presidents Joe Biden and Ursula Von Der Leyen. What we do is fundamental to the ability to guarantee the freedom and safety of individuals and small businesses on a massive scale.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me personally on LinkedIn. I also share official announcements from the Quad9 blog or our account on LinkedIn. Please note, though, that this is my personal account, and what I say does not represent the views of Quad9 as an organisation.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nadia Alter of Quad9 Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.