Becky Bace was not the kind of computer security expert who appeared on talk shows, trying to literally scare up interest in whatever she was selling. She was a strong voice of reason in the information security community, a champion for women in the industry, and an encourager of security researchers everywhere. And she was my dear friend.
Becky died unexpectedly on March 14 after a brief illness. The security community, and the people who were eventually protected by her work, will be poorer for her loss.
Chief strategist at the Center for Forensics, Information Technology, and Security at the University of South Alabama, Becky struggled against the discrimination against women pervasive in the industry, but persisted anyway, becoming one of the principal pioneers of intrusion detection technology. Entire companies exist because of the work of Becky and her colleagues.
Becky and I met when she was nominated as a possible judge for the first Hacker Court in 2001, which I organized at the Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas and would run every year until 2011. The mock trial demonstrated challenges in presenting technical evidence in court.
Many wonderfully talented people were involved in Hacker Court at the time, cybersecurity and privacy luminaries including (but hardly limited to) Jennifer Granick, Jonathan Klein, Jack Holleran, Richard Salgado, Paul Ohm, Richard Thieme, and Kevin Bankston. Jack Holleran knew Becky and thought she’d get a kick out of it. Of course, I knew who she was—I even had her book, Intrusion Detection.
I was intimidated to reach out to her, but her firstname.lastname@example.org email address suggested someone who was quite approachable. I was delighted to speak with another “mom” in the industry—there were so few of us—and when I asked about her kids, I was mortified to discover that she had lost her only child to cancer at a young age.
I thought it discreet to avoid further mention of my kids, but Becky would have none of that. She immediately began treating my kids like she was their long-lost aunt, and often asked how they were doing and offered them advice.
“Ryan! So great to see you!” Becky exclaimed as she greeted my son at the O’Reilly Security Conference in the fall of 2016. After conversing with Ryan, whom she’d known for more than 15 years, about his job at Ipsos, she turned to me and asked, “So how’s our girl?” referring to my daughter, Caitlin, who at age 8 served as Becky’s clerk on stage at that first Hacker Court.
Over the years, Becky has inspired Caitlin a great deal—and expected great things from her. I told her Caitlin was now a software developer at Unium, and she proceeded to discuss the company’s technology and prospects. She knew everything about the business.
Becky loved to laugh, and she loved incongruities. She described herself as a “redneck Japanese from Alabama,” a fact she found amusing. She loved to send up stereotypes and laughed with the Hacker Court team as we came up with ridiculous, implausible scenarios for cybercrime cases.
She often referred to the movie My Cousin Vinny when we worked on our mock trials, and particularly enjoyed this line delivered by Joe Pesci as the title character Vinny Gambini: “Hey, Stan, you’re in Ala-fuckin’-bama. You come from New York. You killed a good ol’ boy. There is no way this is not going to trial!”
Becky’s humorous common sense, kindness, and formidable knowledge was a refreshingly contrasted change from the snake-oil salesmenship and fraud in this industry. She genuinely cared about people and made many feel as if they were particularly special to her.
Soon after I lost my mother in early 2014, Becky reached out to ask if I’d be on a panel at RSA. When I declined, she sent me the following email, which I think is particularly appropriate to share now:
I can so relate to the stressors you’re weathering right now. When my dad left us, I was still on the West Coast, and spent so much of the year following his demise juggling work and travel to and from Alabama—FWIW, it’s survivable, but I remember the stress levels all too well. As for your dad, it was amazing to me how the local community closed ranks behind my mother and siblings, providing moral support and other more substantial offerings—I hope that the same will kick into action for him and the rest of your family. It’s a non-trivial transition and you’re entitled to be overwhelmed by it all (and to be cut a non-trivial amount of slack to allow you to grieve and resolve the loss.)
Getting to know Becky widened my circle of contacts more than any social-media platform I’ve ever used. She knew everyone and loved to connect people to see what would come of it. It was fitting that she worked with Trident Capital as a venture consultant—she knew the people, and she knew the technology, and there was no one who was better at making those connections.
Becky Bace is no longer with us, but her work—and many of the relationships and projects she incubated and encouraged—live on.
The best way to honor her memory is to pass the torch. Make those introductions for people who are new in the field. Take the time to provide counsel. Be kind and caring. Work your ass off, even when people disparage you. Be eclectic, and don’t fit into any particular slot. You can only be cutting-edge if you throw out the box.
Be like Becky.