Let’s get rid of “man-in-the-middle”
A man-in-the-middle attack is a form of active eavesdropping in computer security. The attacker sits in the middle of a communication and listens to each message before passing it along to the intended recipient.
It is also part of the language that excludes women from the technology industry.
The term “man-in-the-middle” assumes that the attacker (usually a researcher in a computer science lab) is male. In order for us to make that assumption, we have to know that women don’t belong in computer security, aren’t welcome here.
We’re perpetuating those beliefs, even if we don’t believe them. This is called a micro-aggression.
I want to take a quick step back to make a few things clear. First, I’m a staunch feminist. Second, it’s okay with me that you’re not. We all grow up in such different circumstances, and for me to challenge the ways you speak (which I’m doing here) isn’t just about you, it confronts all of the people who you love and respect.
Your boss, your friends, your mentors, your peers, the leaders of the developer community, and a million other people have used “man-in-the-middle” to describe this attack for a long time. I’ve been using it until recently, and will probably still slip and use it in the future.
So I don’t want to tell you that you’re wrong, or tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t use an old term.
You’re not wrong. But I want you to know that there’s a better way. It’s easy to choose more inclusive language when you speak, and it can make a huge difference to your audience.
Back to micro-aggressions. I was very resistant to “politically correct” language when I was first introduced to it.
And I fought it until the day it clicked for me. I was building an educational game for a class of 4th graders, and a friend of mine, talking to the class, said “We’re really excited to build this game for you guys!”
I’d always used “you guys” to refer to a group of mixed gender- everyone knew what I meant, so it didn’t matter.
But when my friend said it to that class, I’m not sure they all knew what she meant. Some of the girls may have thought that video games were for boys, and so we really were just talking to the guys in the class.
We may have accidentally made the girls feel unwelcome, because of a simple habit of speech.
Since then, I’ve tried to say “y’all” instead of “you guys”. I’m not perfect, but the habit was pretty easy to make and now it’s automatic for my language to be more inclusive.
I still have a lot to learn. I make so many mistakes that exclude people I care about and want to support, but I’m getting better.
Women already play a huge role in this industry, and that influence is only going to grow in the next chapter. Being critical of the past isn’t useful, but it’s important that we work together to keep getting better.
There’s another old term for a “man-in-the-middle” attack: a bucket-brigade attack. Let’s use that instead.
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Thanks so much to Kim, Kevin, Jordan, Ana, Cynthia, and Annie for reading this before I posted.