Uncovering the Real History of the Internet: A Q&A with Content Studio and Trust Practice Leader Elinor Mills

It’s easy to take the internet for granted and see it as an ever-present resource that we can access nearly any time. But the internet hasn’t always existed in its current form and may look unrecognizable in another few decades. As a former tech journalist, Mission North’s Senior Vice President of Content and Media Strategy Elinor Mills understands that like few others. During her 22-year tenure as a tech reporter, she reported on the internet’s evolution from infancy to the dominating presence that it holds today. 

Always a pioneer, Elinor was the first former journalist we hired nearly eight years ago, and boy do I feel lucky to work alongside her. She straddles our Content team and the Media Practice to lend her perspective on what the media truly care about and need to do their jobs. With a nose for compelling storytelling and masterful interview technique, Elinor cuts through the crap with honesty and authority that our clients need. Pile on her crisp (and quick) writing and editing with her deep curiosity in hacker culture, and knowledge of cyberattack techniques and privacy issues, and you have a force of nature.

It’s not fair to keep all of the goodness that Elinor lends just to ourselves and our clients, so I decided to virtually “sit down” with her and interview her. We covered everything from the changing media landscape, to similarities between Burning Man and hacker cultures, to growing privacy policy issues. Here is an edited version of that discussion. Enjoy! 

How have you seen the media’s coverage of the tech industry evolve?


When I got my first job out of grad school at the Associated Press in 1990, there was very little coverage of the tech industry. By 1994, when I started covering technology for IDG News Service, there were trade publications like IDG pubs InfoWorld and Network World that focused on the latest software and hardware products, But tech as a business story didn’t really become a big thing until after the web and email took off in the late 1990s. 

In the mid-’90s, Microsoft was the dominant company, Oracle was big, Sun Microsystems was cool and everyone was writing Apple off. There was a battle for the soul of the internet being waged between those who wanted to keep the internet free and pure of ads, and businesses attracted by a promising new commercial market. We know who won that fight.

There was a battle for the soul of the internet being waged between those who wanted to keep the internet free and pure of ads, and businesses attracted by a promising new commercial market. We know who won that fight.

Another war was being waged over software pricing models. Microsoft’s proprietary operating system Windows owned the desktop market, but a scrappy group of programmers balked at the monopoly and the open-source software movement was born. Microsoft was so entrenched that it was difficult to see how such a revolutionary idea would take off in corporate America. Today most of the software on the internet is open source but it was a long epic journey to get there. It was a really thrilling time to be covering tech. 

Is there one exciting story from that time that stands out to you?


Yes — when I discovered the world of hackers. I watched the security field grow from a niche group of crypto nerds and indie hackers to the multi-billion-dollar industry that it is today. At the time, cryptographers were developing algorithms to keep sensitive data private, while the U.S. government was trying to outlaw encryption. Hackers were finding holes in software to force vendors to fix them and getting sued. We’re still grappling with notions of right and wrong and tradeoffs, but in the digital world this was a new frontier. I’ve also always been interested in underground communities. I spent part of my childhood in Haight Ashbury in the 60s and I’ve been to Burning Man many times. Those communities and experiences have a lot in common with the early days of cybersecurity, when it was about creativity, curiosity, exploring frontiers and pushing boundaries. 

Elinor enjoys a Burning Man sunset. Photo: Dave Simon

I was sent to cover DEF CON in 1994 and was immediately fascinated. It was clear the stakes were high and security would become more of a problem, and yet the public had no real idea. The hackers were a lot different from the executives at the big tech companies who were profit motivated. Hackers and security researchers were driven more by passion and intellectual challenge. To me, security was a culture story about opposing forces of good and evil and the gray space in between. 

Hackers and security researchers were driven more by passion and intellectual challenge. To me, security was a culture story about opposing forces of good and evil and the gray space in between.

How did this passion for tech and security translate into your superpowers at Mission North?


I don’t know that I’d call them superpowers… but as a journalist, and now working in PR, I’ve been focused on telling stories that are colorful and informative, and I particularly like counter-intuitive angles. For instance, the “hacker as hero” story has always resonated with me, as far as ethical hackers go. I like to highlight the people behind the technology. And I’ve been fortunate to get to work with security startup founders that I interviewed years earlier when they were college students hacking mobile phones in between classes. I’ve also realized how critical building relationships is both for reporting and in PR. While covering the hacking community, I had to earn peoples’ trust or I wouldn’t get far. The same goes for working with clients and the media on this side, where it’s important to show how you can be a valuable resource and that you’re willing to do your homework. 

Elinor (far right) at DEF CON. Photo: Seth Rosenblatt

What trends or companies are you most excited about right now?


One thing I love about Mission North is how intentional our approach to curating our portfolio is. We have an annual process called Portfolio By Design where we look at the trends in each industry we serve, and see what companies are in the space that might have an interesting story to tell. We’re looking for mission-driven companies in exciting markets that have interesting leaders and new ways of solving problems. As an example, we had targeted disinformation as a sector we wanted to explore in 2018 and later that year got the opportunity to work with Graphika, a social network mapping and analysis company. We jumped into the partnership just ahead of them presenting to Congress a big report on Russian social media influence operations. Today, their research continues to expose underground operations that are threats to democracy, including a report on a Russian campaign that has been operating for six years.

I’ve always been interested in privacy issues and had been wanting to work with a privacy client, but there wasn’t much of a market until the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took effect two years ago and became the first big regulation governing data privacy. So I was thrilled when we got the opportunity to start working with BigID, which helps companies be compliant with GDPR, and now California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) too. There are going to be a lot of interesting things happening in the privacy space going forward.