Context Matters

One of the topics I find meandering across my consciousness every so often is the importance of context.

Ironically it's appeared across multiple contexts.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. First, when I was writing for a B2B Software as a Service (SaaS) cybersecurity/authentication company, I was working on a whitepaper based on a subject matter expert (SME) interview where said SME talked about the important role context plays in his cybersecurity research.

Then, in my own research into social engineering for that piece, I encountered 1/2 dozen expert comments on the importance of context when assessing risk and identifying social engineering in the wild.

And at the same time, I was reading a bio/memoir of sorts (Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, it's quite good). Batchelor was an ordained Buddhist monk for more than a decade, with several years being spent in a retreat center in a small Swiss town. He talks about how conspicuous he felt there and contrasts that with the years he spent as but one of many robed monks at the monasteries where he trained.

Next, while I was still working on that piece, I found myself sitting through a meeting about adaptive multi-factor authentication (MFA) and what do you know...the importance of context formed the outline for an entire section of the presentation.

So, what do I take away from all this, other than the sheer, unadulterated excitement that is the day-to-day of an in-house writer?

Simply this: context matters.

I mean, I already knew that as a writer, but it was eye-opening to have it driven home in areas that diverse—life as a Buddhist monk and cybersecurity—at the same time.

The SME I was interviewing made several interesting comments about the role context plays in his job when designing the systems that assess whether a login attempt is legitimate or not. For example, there's something called "the impossible travel scenario" that their product uses when determining how to use MFA (hence the addition of 'adaptive' earlier).

Say you live in Seattle (I know, quite a stretch coming from a Seattleite), and the last 12 logins to your account were from the same location. Then, 5 minutes after your last login, there's an attempt made from Paris. Since there's no way for you to have hopped continents in 5 minutes, that's impossible travel and the system throws up a CAPTCHA or prompts a text message to verify ID.


In the world of social engineering — which blends roughly equal amounts of psychology, technology, and espionage — context is absolutely crucial.

Whether in terms of situational awareness when spotting someone trying to piggyback (sneak in behind someone with an access badge) into a secure office space or simply double-checking the "sent from" address for typos to help spot phishing emails.

It astounds me how many data breaches could be cut off at the knees if just one person had noticed just one thing that didn't look right.


Then there was that Twitter hack early in lockdown. The kid who pled guilty took advantage of the then-new work-from-home situation to call Twitter employees pretending to be internal IT and told them he needed their passwords to resolve an issue.

Had these employees stopped and assessed that request—in other words, if they looked at the context of the request—they could have used the internal IT systems to verify that it was a legit request (it wasn't), coming via an approved medium (it wasn't), to work on a known issue (nope, strike 3).

Instead, this clown made his way into multiple high-profile accounts and used them to run a cyber currency scam.


Situational awareness is a term that comes from the military but has multiple uses in the civilian world. That's especially true in security. A relative spent some time helping out an executive security firm during their interview process. She's a very average (for this region) woman in her 30s, so in no way does she stand out in a crowd. Her job was to turn up at 4 locations where the interviewee was supposed to be protecting the executive and just...hang around, acting suspiciously.

Out of 12 candidates, not a single one picked her out. They saw her in 4 different, random places over a short period, and not one realized it. Situational awareness AND pattern recognition failed them and not one was hired.


Steven Batchelor writes about how after he de-robed, married a former nun from his order, and moved back to England, he reflected on the path that brought him to that point. Early on in his academic work, he was tasked with translating several ancient Pali texts along with some writings of his teacher that were in Tibetan, into English.

That meant spending most of his waking hours locked in a study on the grounds of his monastery, surrounded only by other monks. Then, he was tasked with accompanying his teacher as he set up a new retreat center in Switzerland.

This plopped him down in a purely western town, surrounded by all that entails, and for the first time since taking his oath, making him feel extremely exposed and out of place.

Nothing about him had changed. Nothing about his teacher or others at the center had changed, they were all still robed, shaved-headed monks just like before. But the context around him had changed dramatically, and his interactions with those around the center showed that difference quite starkly.

Spoiler alert—ultimately, he de-robed but has remained a Buddhist scholar and teacher based in France.


I'm interested to see how this new level of awareness of context will translate to my own day-to-day. I'm someone who is already acutely aware of some aspects of context, mainly around pattern recognition and other people's emotional state. If you're aware of the idea of someone being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) you have an idea what I mean.

If not, that's for a whole 'nother post.

Or series of posts.

Or maybe a book.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep my eyes open for how context interacts with my daily life and will report back.

Maybe you’ll do the same? If so, let me know what you discover.