Hardware and software are often the first things that come to mind when you think of cybersecurity. But another factor is just as important: the human element.
Social engineering attacks like phishing illustrate this point. That’s when a cybercriminal weaponizes a digital channel like an email to trick victims into giving up sensitive information.
Dr. Sean Guillory has made the study of human behavior—positive, negative, and everything in between—his life’s work. At Booz Allen, he’s blending this knowledge with expertise in robotics and automation to help organizations protect themselves from emerging threats and better enable warfighters to navigate rapidly evolving technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
From Studying Cognitive Neuroscience to Cognitive Warfare
“How can my background and skills be helpful to people?” Sean has often asked this question as he has shaped a multifaceted career that once started in healthcare.
At Dartmouth College, Sean worked with neurosurgery patients to help improve functional brain mapping for cognitive functions beyond basic motor skills and speech production like gross motor skills, language understanding, and single-neuron recordings. After earning his Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, he did post-doctoral research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
While helping launch a start-up business incubator, interactions with the venture capital ecosystem in Texas introduced Sean to data science. This led to work in digital marketing and analytics, then data science efforts to help catch online scammers.
A concurrent interest in defense and national security crystallized after he read Richards Heuer’s book, The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. It examines how people process information to make judgments on incomplete and ambiguous information.
Sean’s quest to continually study human behavior next led to cybersecurity, social engineering, adversarial machine learning, and more. “The aperture opened up,” he says. He wondered where he could put his blend of expertise and interests to work. “Then I found the right people.”
Threats at the Intersection of Humans and Technology
Sean’s current work at Booz Allen encompasses how interactions between humans and technology can be weaponized—for information advantage and information warfare and for making soldiers and their equipment more vulnerable.
“’Should I trust the automation on my F-35, or is someone jamming it up or trying to fool me?’ Or ‘what if a search engine delivers answers that it’s not supposed to deliver because of a prompt injection attack?’ These are just a couple of examples of situations soldiers might face,” says Sean.
He calls it the “weaponization of doubt”—a growing category of threats. “The more technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, the more social engineering attacks are going to be the bread and butter of where we go,” explains Sean.
He is using biometrics, social science methodology, and robotics, including robotic process automation and bots, to study the landscape. It’s a wide-ranging domain that includes human-machine teaming, autonomous systems, algorithmic warfare, behavioral modeling and prediction, human factors engineering, and UX principles and frameworks, as well as combatting disinformation and misinformation.
Using these capabilities, Sean’s goal is “to make sure Booz Allen can be the standard-bearer in this space.”
Building Knowledge for a Rapidly Evolving Future
Understanding today’s threats is just the beginning of Sean’s mission, however. “I also want to help folks see where the future is heading. Booz Allen fosters this future thinking through groups such as Booz Ph.D. Brain Trust,” says Sean. “It recruits specific people interested in building upon our innovation ecosystem.”
Toward this goal, he’s written about topics like global supply chain threats and supports an internal podcast initiative about technology innovations. He hopes it will become “a North Star for the kinds of innovations that may take place at Booz Allen.”
“The future of cognitive warfare demands that experts continue to educate themselves,” Sean says. “Fields like ethical AI and quantum computing will only grow in importance, and I’m eager to help train the intelligence community on these topics and others.”
As a member of Booz Allen’s Black Analytics group, he’s helping future experts build their knowledge as well. This includes setting up the firm’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Capstone mentorship program at Bowie State University. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a national security imperative, and Booz Allen is a wonderful place that helps nurture it,” he says.
What advice does Sean have for people pursuing a career path in cognitive warfare, robotics, and the digital battlespace? “Develop one expertise, but also be able to speak across silos,” he says.
And don’t wait to get started. “Cognitive warfare is still so new—there’s still lots of fresh powder here,” he says. “Come dig into the field with us. It’s exciting, important, and rewarding.”
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