Software Development
Privacy / Women in tech

Meet the ex-Googler who’s making secure web tools more user-friendly

Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody, who lives in Swarthmore, runs the Google- and Dropbox-backed not-for-profit Simply Secure.

Refurbished computer delivery from PCs for People in 2020. (Photo via Facebook)
Just because it’s a tool that’s protecting your privacy online doesn’t mean it has to be clunky and awkward to use.

That’s the thinking behind Simply Secure, a new not-for-profit backed by Google and Dropbox that’s run by former Google product manager Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody. Brody, 33, lives in Swarthmore with her husband, a computer science professor at Swarthmore College, and their infant son.
Simply Secure is focused on making secure communication tools, like anonymous browser Tor or secure messaging app Signal, more usable. (Simply Secure doesn’t have an official partnership with either Tor or Signal — those are just examples of the kinds of projects it cares about.) The group’s tagline: “Security’s got to be easy and intuitive, or it won’t work.”

Simply Secure is part consultancy, part research group: it advises teams working on these kinds of tools and then publishes lessons learned on the company blog. The outfit is also part of Philly’s growing internet freedom scene.
Usability is an issue that’s growing in prominence in the internet privacy community: earlier this month at the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium held in Philadelphia, there were at least two talks on usability, one of them by Brody and her design director Ame Elliott. Activist and Tor volunteer, Nima Fatemi, later told us he was happy to see attention shifting toward the usability of privacy tools.

scout sinclair brody

Sara “Scout” Sinclair Brody. (Courtesy photo)

Why is it usability such a tough issue in the online privacy community?
Brody said it has to do with the democratic nature of the teams building these tools. Many of them are volunteers and there’s not much hierarchy, which means there’s no “boss” setting down an edict about how things should look — it’s more about consensus.
“It’s not just the technical challenge of getting a good design, but the human challenge of coming to consensus on what a good design actually looks like,” Brody said.
Brody, who goes by her college nickname of Scout (a la To Kill a Mockingbird) because there are “8 million Saras everywhere you go,” fell into computer science the second semester of her freshman year at Wellesley College. She had to take an intro to computer science course if she wanted to major in cognitive and linguistic science (she wanted to be a linguist) and ended up taking a shine to it. That was in 2000, right before the bubble burst. Brody was part of one of the last big classes of CS majors.
She got interested in computer security during a fledgling course at Wellesley that some friends put together, where the professors were “two weeks ahead of us,” she said. She liked how the field forced her to apply other disciplines, like sociology, economics and psychology, to computer science. It was the human aspect of computer security that really struck her and that’s why she gravitated toward usability. She went on to get her Ph.D. in computer science at Dartmouth, where she focused her research on passwords and other types of “access control” in corporate settings. It’s also where she met her husband, Joshua Brody.
Her first job after Dartmouth was at Google, where she was part of the prestigious Google Associate Product Manager Program started by Marissa Mayer more than a decade ago to groom entry-level staffers as product managers. Brody worked on the Android operating system, two-factor authentication and human rights-oriented projects. She started out in the West Coast office and later moved to the New York office, to which she commuted from Center City three times a week. (Ticketleap’s VP of Product Beah Burger-Lenehan is another local ex-Google product manager who did the Philly-NYC commute.)
After three years at Google, Brody resigned for family reasons — her husband got a tenure-track position at Swarthmore, and she became pregnant, so the commute just wasn’t reasonable anymore. She took the position as Simply Secure’s executive director shortly after.
Keeping the internet free and open is a cause that’s close to her heart.
The internet, she said, “is the defining invention of my generation.”
“It’s such part of my daily life and my existence that the integrity of the internet is fundamentally important to my life and who I am,” she said, adding: “I think it’s really critical that we, as a society, work to keep it open and work to keep it free because like any other mechanism of communication and information sharing, there is always the temptation to try and control the flow of information.”
Brody’s team is distributed across the country, with design director Elliott in San Francisco and operations manager “Trouble” in Boston.
The first time they met in person was during the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium earlier this month.

Companies: Tor Project

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