The last time Hackerfall tried to access this page, it returned a not found error. A cached version of the page is below, or clickhereto continue anyway

Google's Parisa Tabriz Profile - Information Security Engineer Parisa Tabriz Interview Author

And then there are groups like Anonymous, a "hacktivist" consortium motivated by a professed commitment to complete Internet freedom. It has bubbled into the popular imagination, thanks to Guy Fawkes masks and its work crippling entities such as PayPal, which the group attacked in 2010 in retaliation for its suspension of Wikileaks.

When Tabriz hears of Anonymous cases, she says her first reaction is embarrassment for the company hit, as in, "Oh, wow, PayPal [had] this weakness in their software." Which isn't to say she approves of Anonymous: She compares their acts to "robbing a convenience store."

While growing the ranks of white-hat hackers is one way to at least stem the tide of cyber crime, security experts are also working on new technologies to tighten user defenses. For the memory challenged among us, the news is good: No more passwords. Computers and accounts will soon be accessed through a physical object—iPhone fingerprint identification is only the beginning. There's a chance that pretty soon smart chips with strong cryptography programs will be embedded in everyday accessories to unlock devices. Some have suggested cell phones for this purpose, but Tabriz is skeptical. "I think phones are designed for men, because they're big and don't fit into your pockets all the time. But I'm always wearing a bra. I usually have earrings"—in other words, someday La Perla and Bulgari could be designing their wares with microchip software in mind. Tech's gender divide has a funny way of popping up where you least expect it, and Tabriz is happy to address it head-on. "If you have ambitions to create technology for the whole world, you need to represent the whole world, and the whole world is not just white men."

Google has faced its own set of problems when it comes to the advancement of women. In its engineering divisions, employees must nominate themselves for promotion rather than counting on managers to do it—a system that practically seems designed to be discriminatory; as Sheryl Sandberg, former Google vice president of global online sales and operations, has noted, women tend to be "more reluctant to apply for promotions even when deserved, often believing that good job performance will naturally lead to rewards." That said, when Google alerted its workforce to an internal study concluding that, indeed, female employees were 20 percent less likely than male to put themselves forward, women's "self-nomination rates rose significantly," according to Sandberg. (Google declined to make its current leaders available for an interview about its gender climate, though Nancy Lee, director of People Operations—think HR—e-mailed: "One of the most 
important things we can do is to celebrate the contributions of women in technology.")

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Tabriz doesn't perceive gender as a negative for her, though she thinks she "may be a little more pushy than the [female] stereotype." Among the young women she mentors, some continue to struggle to navigate Google's at times Darwinian environment, she says, where "you kind of have to demonstrate 
authority without explicitly having it."

Heidi Shin, a former Google employee who worked closely with engineers, is more blunt. "You talk to male engineers, they're really focused on the product idea, and they explain it in a way where they were the runners, and they were the leaders, even though the project could have been collaborative." And what do women say? " 'This was a group project, and I did this together with the other engineers, and a lot of other people were involved.' "

When and how—or even whether—women will reach parity with men at Google and elsewhere in tech are open questions. Because fewer women study science, technology, engineering, and math, fewer become tech engineers; because there is a smaller pool of female engineers to hire from, not many women get in on the ground floor of the next hot start-up; because only a handful of women make bundles of money from a hot start-up, few can become angel investors who pour money into future ventures. It's a snowball effect that some worry could end up replicating the male-dominated Wall Street culture.

Planet Granite, a rock-climbing gym a few miles from Google's campus, might be the best place to witness Peak Parisa. It's a Monday after work, and she climbs high and by herself, anchored from the ground by her neuroscientist boyfriend. She's lead-climbing, clicking her carabiners into place, in charge of securing herself from a fall as she methodically scales the faux-rock face. It's a steady, rhythmic act, almost balletic: Clip, leg up, straighten. Clip, leg up, straighten. Soon she is four or five stories up in the air, a slight figure in black amid the canopy of ropes and the confetti of rainbow-colored footholds marking trails to the ceiling of the warehouse space.

Lots of the other climbers here are Google employees—it's a favorite pastime of the type-A software engineers who litter the area, which makes sense given that wall routes are called "problems" and solving them is a largely solo endeavor done in midair. And it's funny to see how normal they all look, standing around in their Patagonia gear, these people who brought us now ubiquitous street maps and excellent e-mail design, and, however inadvertently, helped usher in a jarring new reality about privacy. They seem so nice, so trustworthy, as they work the ropes for their climbing friends perched on high precipices. And we have trusted them almost wholeheartedly up until recently, because they seem to have the best of intentions. But who's to say they always will? What, for instance, keeps Tabriz from hacking into an ex-boyfriend's e-mail? "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you do do something," she says simply.

Is it chilling or heartening that it comes down to plain old trust in your fellow man? Google and Facebook and all their predecessors have transformed this valley from edenic orchards into a Prius-clogged suburban corridor on the backs of the wild horses of innovation. But there's no way to hack a lack of good faith.

At the very least, Tabriz trusts herself to keep us from harm. And 50 feet off the ground, calmly straddling a precarious spot where the planes of two walls converge to a sharp point, where she is caught literally between a rock and a hard place, she seems like exactly the right woman for the job.

This article appeared in the July 2014 issue of ELLE magazine.

Continue reading on