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Sporkman
June 18th, 2008, 04:26 PM
http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/computersecurity/2008-06-17-mozilla-window-snyder_N.htm?csp=34


'Geek girl' helps keep Mozilla safe in scary times

http://i.usatoday.net/tech/_photos/2008/06/18/snyderx.jpg

By Jon Swartz, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — Window Snyder isn't your average security czar.

As chief of security at Mozilla Foundation, the unconventional non-profit whose popular Web browser Firefox underwent a major facelift this week, Snyder cuts an unconventional swath.

For starters, her title is "chief security something-or-other" (yeah, that's on her business card). It befits her wide-ranging role at Mozilla, the Web browser developer that relies on the contributions of thousands of programmers worldwide. The programmers generally work for free, but Snyder's salary is paid with revenue Mozilla generates through business partnerships with Google, Amazon.com and others.

Organized cybercrime gangs are more highly focused than ever on taking control of your computer through browser-based hacks. They've already turned some 40% of the world's 800 million Internet-connected PCs into obedient "bots" used to spread spam, harvest your sensitive data and commit fraud. The bad guys are highly motivated to expand their bot empires. And their favorite tactic to wrest control of your machine is by corrupting browser-run applications that enable all of the Web's coolest functions, like watching videos and social networking.

Because Mozilla's Firefox browser is based on open-source code that is continually refined by volunteers, it is widely considered by tech security experts to be the most secure, though by no means impregnable, browser. Into the virulent dark side of Web 2.0 strolls Snyder, leader of some 20,000 independent programmers committed to shoring up Firefox's first line of defenses.

In setting out to elevate Firefox's basic security, Snyder is also compelling Microsoft and Apple, maker of the Safari browser, to follow her lead — or get out of the way.

Snyder's rising star is sure to ascend even more this week, with the release of Version 3.0 of Firefox on Tuesday. The release is packed with new features, most notably stiffer security, faster speed and improved ease of use.

"The fun is in deconstructing where the security holes are," Snyder, 32, says with a wry smile and knowing laugh.

But don't let her youthful facade fool you. Snyder's career path includes co-founding a security company and consultant work at At Stake, which was sold to Symantec for $49 million in 2004.

And, yes, she once worked at Microsoft, managing the security process for a couple versions of the Windows operating system.

During her three-year stint there, Snyder pioneered the Blue Hat program, which opened communications between Microsoft developers and outside security researchers. Previously, Microsoft was loath to share technical information with those outside of its Redmond, Wash., headquarters. Now she must summon all her collaboration skills in reaching out to the open-source community, where Firefox has thrived.

In her spare time — insert deep breath here — she managed to co-write Threat Modeling, an online security guide that's used by software engineers.

Dave Goldsmith, who as president of Matasano Security has worked with Snyder in various capacities, calls her an "online security rock star."

Adds Eva Chen, CEO and co-founder of security company Trend Micro: "It's gratifying to see other women in prominent roles in tech security. For so long, men have dominated the field. Women didn't have an old boy's network."

'Geek girl': Programming at 5

A self-avowed "geek girl" and daughter of software engineers, Snyder says her mom taught her to program Basic, an early computer programming language, on a Texas Instruments PC when she was 5 years old.

"She has a natural sparkle and joy," says her Kenyan-born mother, Wayua (Eastern African dialect for "Born during famine") Muasa, who embarked on a software engineering career in her early 40s after stints in teaching and promoting tourism for Kenya at the United Nations.

Still, Snyder's whipsaw-fast mind and inquisitive nature can be hard to keep up with. "I tell her to slow down so people can digest what she is saying," Muasa says.

No kidding. In between sips of tea at a local Starbucks, Snyder offers a dizzying discourse on abstract algebra, the concept of parallel lines intersecting in space, and the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama, whom she volunteered for in Texas.

But she is downright Pixar-like animated about Mozilla.

"The strength of Mozilla is absolutely the community (of tens of thousands of volunteers). We have to make sure they know they're being heard," says Snyder, who joined Mozilla last year.

The challenge is to get the public — so aware of security for their homes and cars — to be as vigilant with their PCs. That's where the articulate Snyder and fortified Firefox come in. She is a bright new face in the computer-security field.

By most accounts, she is succeeding swimmingly. "She is effective and respected among several constituencies: nitty-gritty geeks, customers and the general public," says Mitchell Baker, Mozilla's longtime chairman. "She has learned to walk the fine line of making complex concepts understandable and accurate."

Breaking frontiers

It's been a steady climb for Firefox, whose roots stretch back to the now-defunct Netscape Communications. It has accumulated 170 million users in more than 200 countries and an 18% share of the browser market, according to market researcher Net Applications. (Microsoft Internet Explorer commands 75% of the market, or more than 700 million users.)

Now, after several years of development and public testing, version 3.0 is out.

Leading the evangelistic effort is Snyder, whose middle name is Window. Her first name, Mwende — which means "beloved" and is the name of her maternal grandmother — by custom is used only by family members.

Such is part of her Kenya heritage, a legacy for her that stretches back to age 9 when she first traveled there. In preparation for that trip, Window learned key phrases in Swahili on her own. She and her mom return every few years.

"She has an easygoing, calming demeanor," says Muasa, a retiree who lives in Seattle. "When I moved in 2004, I accidentally threw away baby pictures and Window's drawings. I was devastated. She said, 'That's OK, Mom. Let it go.' "

Snyder is among the youngest of 30 board members at Choate Rosemary Hall, the private school in Connecticut she attended in the early 1990s.

Snyder is illustrative of the Choate way that has guided fellow alumni President John F. Kennedy and actress Glenn Close — intelligence, dedication in "the pursuit of breaking frontiers" and confidence, says Herb Kohler, CEO of manufacturing giant Kohler Co. and chairman of the school's board of trustees.

This week, Firefox 3.0 joins Snyder's growing résumé.

"My gosh, she talks about things I have no concept about," Kohler says.