An image of Mozilla Fellow Brian Obilo

This is a profile of Brian Obilo, a Mozilla Fellow in the Tech and Society Fellowship program.

Civil society is not as it was 10 years ago: activists and researchers around the globe now face privacy and security risks they couldn’t have imagined one decade prior. As a result, these organizations have updated digital strategies and methods of working in order to adapt to the changing landscape and stay safe. Brian Obilo, a Mozilla Tech and Society fellow, warns, however, that civil society organizations still need to take cybersecurity a lot more seriously when using new digital technologies to organize and communicate.

“Why aren’t they paranoid? Why is cybersecurity an afterthought while at the same time civil society is actively leveraging technology in their work?

Obilo adds: “The moment you mention technology, you have to realize that it comes with repercussions. For me as a fellow, that's been sort of like the main thing when I'm doing cybersecurity capacity building. I’m sort of like a prophet of doom.”

Nairobi-based Obilo uses the recent shift to virtual meetings and gatherings caused by the COVID19 pandemic to illustrate the importance of organizations placing cybersecurity at the forefront of their priorities.

Although it's always been prevalent, we saw COVID19-centered phishing, attacks on civil society, and the rise of ransomware. We saw video conferencing attacks where people were being Zoom-bombed. It was one of the craziest things I've witnessed in my life. People in Kenya are using more public networks because not everyone has the privilege to have Wi-Fi access in their own homes. In some instances, they were connecting to public Wi-Fi where nothing was encrypted. These were some of the challenges organizations witnessed,” Obilo says.

Obilo, a multi-skilled Cyber Security Engineer and Digital Security Trainer, is part of Mozilla’s first cohort of Tech and Society Fellows. They have been partnered with civil society organizations in their region who they work with to research and find solutions relevant to their shared interests. Because of his passion for cybersecurity, Katiba Institute was a good fit for Obilo. Katiba is Kiswahili for Constitution. The Institute “defends and facilitates the implementation of the Constitution through civic education, public interest litigation, and research.” Their work inspired Obilo to apply for the fellowship.

“They wanted a fellow who would come in to explore opportunities to advance the rule of law by leveraging all sorts of technology. The aim is to enhance the safety and security of human rights defenders and everyday citizens,” says Obilo.

This work appealed to Obilo because he’d previously done some community building initiatives and training around cybersecurity. Obilo recognizes that other civil society organizations like Katiba manage important data and need to tighten up their security and protect themselves from threats in the digisphere.

Obilo is developing a civic space cybersecurity monitoring tool. The aim is for the platform to uncover and learn key cybersecurity trends and changes in the civil society space and beyond.

I'm trying to find a way in which we can have a more data driven approach to solving some of the issues that civil societies are facing. It will provide long term capacity building and long term direct technical assistance for them,” says Obilo.

Most of the cybersecurity gaps that exist in the civil society space do not need specialized skills or technical expertise. This, Obilo says, is one of the most surprising things he’s discovered during his fellowship. Obilo says technologists need to focus more on better mechanisms for raising security literacy. He says as an expert in the field, he too struggled with this idea at first.

“I want to make it easy for every single person in the civic space to be able to access key information and manuals that provide very simple and prescriptive guidance. Not only for the civil society organization leadership but for everyone involved at the organizational level – about which tools to use, what policies work best and how to communicate and operationalize security procedures throughout the organization,”

Brian Obilo, Mozilla Fellow

Obilo, describes himself as somewhat of a shapeshifter, as he has used his skills to maneuver his way through a number of different roles. This attribute has helped him throughout his fellowship.

I started my career as I studied. I studied mathematics and computer science, and then I became a software engineer then became a cybersecurity analyst and after that, a cybersecurity engineer in a technology firm. And then now I'm in tech in society. But at the same time, I can handle a variety of tasks and I can multitask and I can change between roles easily,” he says.

His ability to multitask has seen him co-produce research reports with co-fellow Odanga Madung on how the spread of disinformation through coordinated social media campaigns has affected Kenyan society.

This is part of a series focused on the Mozilla Fellows in Tech and Society, a program supported by the Ford Foundation that focuses on supporting strategic engagement at the intersection of technology and lived experiences of communities located in the global majority.