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Thoughts on the RSA Conference, Boycotts, and Babes

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I’ve been delayed in posting this as I have been caught up in travel, teaching, and the other exigencies of my “day job,” including our 15th annual CERIAS Symposium. That means this posting is a little stale, but maybe it is also a little more complete.

I try to attend the RSA Conference every year. The talks are not usually that useful, but the RSAC is the best event to see what is new in the market, and to catch up with many of my colleagues (new and old), touch base with some organizations, see CERIAS alumni, sample both some exotic cuisines and questionable hors d'oeuvres, and replenish my T-shirt supply. It is a very concentrated set of activities that, when properly managed, fits in a huge set of conversations. My schedule for the week is usually quite full, and I am exhausted by the time I return home. This year, I was particularly worn out because I was recovering from a mild case of pneumonia. Still, I mostly enjoyed my week in San Francisco.

This year, there was a boycott, of sorts, against the conference by various parties who were upset at the purported collaboration of RSA with US government agencies many years ago. I’m not going to go into that here, but I think it (the boycott) was misguided. Not only is there no hard evidence that there was any actual weakening of any algorithms, but it was over a decade ago and at a time when both the national security climate and public sentiment were different than today. There is also the issue that companies are susceptible to legal pressures that are not easily dismissed. If there is any blame to accrue to RSA, it would be better directed to the company’s products than the conference. As it was, during my week there, I only saw about 30 seconds of protest — and the conference had (I believe) record attendance.

The conference really has three general components: the technical track, the exhibit floor, and the informal connections around everything else. I’ll address each separately. I have some particular comments about the use of “booth babes” on the exhibit floor.

Technical Track

The conference every year has scores (hundreds?) of talks, workshops, and panels, usually given by industry analysts, CEOs, and engineers, and by various government officials. It is not a scientific conference by any stretch of the imagination. Although marketing talks are strictly prohibited, one of the primary motivations of speakers is to get on stage to promote “their brand.” Often, the talks are filtered through a particular product point of view to reinforce the marketing pitch given elsewhere, or to sell a book, or to subtly promote the speaker’s usefulness as a consultant. Over the last decade I have attended many talks, but found few of them really informative, and several involved misinformation that was not challenged by anyone during the session. I have stopped sending in proposals for talks because my past proposals didn’t fare well — “too academic” was the judgement. I guess if I don’t pull a hacker out of my hat and make a database disappear, I’m not entertaining enough for this crowd considering overall conference attendance, which simply goes to my point about conference focus.

This year there was at least one partially informative session. I was asked at the last minute to fill in on a panel hosted by Gary McGraw. The panel attempted to address a topic that I spend several hour-long lectures covering in class: the classic Saltzer and Schoeder principles of secure design. The panel only covered four of the principles, and superficially, but I think the panel went okay. We had a small crowd.

I attended, briefly, a number of other sessions, but didn’t stay for any but one of them. Perhaps I am getting too cynical and jaded, but I didn’t find anything that was new and interesting; yes, a few things were new, but not surprising or even well-analyzed. I’m not sure it mattered for the audience.

The one session that I stayed for, and thoroughly enjoyed, was the closing session with Stephen Colbert. He was brilliant and funny. His off-the-cuff answers during the Q&A session was excellent all by itself — he not only displayed better than superficial knowledge of portions of the field, but he gave some very quick answers that showed some level of insight as well as humor. Not all of his answers went over with all of the crowd, but I think that showed he was giving some genuine answers of his own rather than trying to amuse.   

Informal Connections

Lots of the real business at the conference really isn’t at the conference, but in the halls, hotels, restaurants, and bars in the vicinity. Companies hold both formal and informal receptions for past & future customers, everyone from CEOs to sales reps work out deals over dinner and drinks, analysts and commentators get news over lunch and finger foods, and employees are recruited in all sorts of venues. Some of the media conduct interviews with notable people (and some rather sketchy types). Organizations presented awards and recognized members at receptions (e.g., the ISSA honored their newest Fellows and Distinguished Fellows, and the (ISC)2 celebrated its 25th anniversary).

These connections are a major draw of the conference for me. I get to reconnect with people I don’t often get to see otherwise, and I also get to meet many others who I might not otherwise encounter. I get to hear about interesting stories that aren’t told to the general sessions, hear about new projects, and tell people about how they are missing out on hiring our great grads from CERIAS. I always return home with a stack of business cards with notes on them of things to send, lookup, and people to call.

This year was no different: I connected with over 30 people I had not seen in months…or years, and met another few score new. I missed running into several people I was hoping to see, but generally had a full schedule. Luckily, there are enough people who have yet to get the memos, and I was invited to some of the receptions. In several instances, I got to meet some people in person that I have only known via on-line persona. In other cases, I got to meet long-time friends and acquaintances who I never get to see often enough because of schedule issues. Some people I was hoping to see weren’t able to make it because of budget issues this year curtailing travel, which seems to have been a little more pronounced this year than the last couple of years, at least among my circle.

I should note that few academics attend this conference: the cost, even with a discounted admission, is significant, and combined with travel, hotel, and other expenses, it can take a sizable chunk out of a limited academic-sized budget. I saw a few colleagues in attendance, but we were all senior. In past years I have tried to cover the expenses for junior colleagues to attend at times in their careers where the possibility of networking with industry might be beneficial, but there is seldom enough unrestricted funding coming in to CERIAS (or me) to cover this on a regular basis.

Overall, I saw little impact from the “boycott.” In fact, I saw several people who spoke or attended the “boycott” event and were also present at the RSA events!

Exhibit Floor

The exhibition at the conference is huge. Nearly all major vendors — and several government entities, from several countries -- have booths of some sort. This year the booths covered both the North and South halls at Moscone Center — there were many hundreds of them. Walking the exhibit floor is mind (and foot) numbing, but I try to do it at least twice each year to be sure I get a good coverage of what is new and interesting…and what is not.

Some companies opt for large — even multistory — booths with lots of screens and demos. Others have small booths with simply a counter and some literature. Many new companies spend a fair amount for a booth to try to gain some market awareness of their products and services. I haven’t done a formal tally, but I’d guess that somewhere around 20% of the companies I see in any given year are no longer there 2 years later — either they fail or are acquired.

Overall, I didn’t see much that excited me as new or particular innovative. Again, that may simply be the longer perspective I bring to this. I remember the old National Computer Security Conferences in the 1990s as a sort of precursor to this, and the baseline trend is not a good one. In the 90s, the exhibitors were all about secure software development and hardened systems. In 2014, the majority of big vendors were flogging services to detect threats that get through all the defenses on Windows and Linux, recovery from break-ins, and other technologies that basically already concede some defeat. Of course, there were also trends — more about encryption, threat intelligence, big data, and securing “cloud” computing, for N different definitions of cloud. I think the best summary of the exhibits was given by Patrick Gray and Marcus Ranum (click the link to hear the audio): somewhat cynical, but dead on.

As I noted in my last blog entry here, the industry is continuing to focus on solving some of the wrong problems.

Flash and Booth Babes

With all those exhibitors on the floor, they are all seeking ways to place some branding with attendees, and to get people to stop by the booths for longer discussions (and to harvest addresses for later sales calls). Usually, this is with some form of giveaway item, such as pens, candy, or T-shirts with clever designs. Sometimes they have a notable security figure there autographing books. I certainly pick up my share of T-shirts and books, plus a few other items that I may use, but the majority of items I decline. The giveaway that amazes me the most is the free USB item that people gladly accept and plug into systems. This is a security conference in 2014 and people are doing that?? Consider that one of the vendors that seemed to be successful giving out a lot of USB sticks was Huawei…. simply wow.

Also annoying are the booths where the people can’t even answer simple questions about their companies. Instead, they want to scan my badge and have me sit through a presentation. No thank you. If you can’t tell me in 30 seconds what your company is about, then I’m not about to sit through 10 minutes of someone breathlessly extolling your “industry leading” approach to … whatever it is you do, and I certainly don’t want to sit through a WebEx presentation next month when I am right here with you now.

In an attempt to stand out, some vendors have gone in odd directions by trying to have some “flash” at the booth to bring people in. In prior years, I saw people in suits of armor and gorilla costumes. There have been booths with motorcycles and sports cars. This year, they had professional magicians, gymnasts, and even a ring with a boxing match! These are not items with branding that someone will walk away with and possibly display in the weeks to come, but simply an attempt to attract attention. It is fairly strange, and annoying, however. Why should those tell me anything about a product or security service, other than the company leadership thinks flash is more important than substance? How the heck do those displays relate to information security?

The most egregious example of this disconnect is the “booth babe.” These are when women (and rarely, men) — usually in some scanty outfit involving spandex — are on display to draw people into the booth. They are never themselves engineers or even in sales: there are agencies that hire out their staff to do this kind of thing. Heck, they can’t even answer basic questions about the company! I make it a point to try to talk to some of these people to see why they are at the booth, and I can’t recall an instance in the past few years where any of the women actually had a technical job within the company whose booth they “adorned."

Let me make clear that I appreciate attractive women. That has been my particular orientation for 45 years, and I am not unhappy with it (although I have always wished more of them appreciated me in return!) But more to the point, I appreciate all women — and men who exemplify achievement and dedication. I appreciate imagination. I appreciate professionalism. I do not appreciate attempts to lure me to a vendor through setting off fireworks, dangling shiny objects, or having women in short shorts trying to get me into the booth. It is insulting.

  • It is insulting to those of us who find women particularly attractive because it implies we need to be seduced in some way to pay attention to technical merit -- that we so lack self-awareness that such lures will overcome our judgement.
  • It is insulting to those of us who do not find women overly attractive, because it implies that we are somehow not part of the community if we aren’t affected by such displays.
  • It is insulting to those of us who are not skinny, or young, or …whatever, because it suggests those features are the values of the companies on display and the values that we are seeking.
  • In is insulting to the women who work in the field, especially the ones who work for those companies in technical positions, because it suggests their abilities and accomplishments are secondary to come-hither looks.

Simply put, it is the wrong message in the wrong context, and the people sending the message are seriously short of clue.

This kind of behavior is harmful to the field because it conveys a message that women are valued primarily because of their appearance, and it trivializes their intellectual contributions. I talked about this in a recent interview and recently wrote about how the field is skewed. We should not and cannot condone the negative messages.

Let me make it clear that I have no quibble with the women themselves who were involved in this — they were hired to put on costumes and be cheerful, to try to draw people in. Standing on concrete floors in 3” heels all day, in not enough clothing to stay warm with the A/C, and trying to be cheerful is not easy. Some of them are students, working to pay tuition, others are supporting children. In one case, the company receptionist and her friend were gamely hanging out in short-shorts to support her company in return for the trip to San Fran. In another case, a company had a beauty pagent winner present, dressed conservatively. She is a pleasant person, and uses her minor celebrity for some good causes, but I do not think that is why the company had her at their booth; I don’t fault her for that decision, however.

Across the exhibition I saw many women who were not on display. Some were in t-shirts and jeans. Some were in heels and dresses. (I asked a few, and it was their first RSA — few will wear heels a second time!) More importantly — it was their own choice, and not something imposed by management. They dressed to be comfortable —as themselves — and if asked technical questions, they were able to respond. Some were thoughtful, some tired, some funny — but all real and there to interact as members of the profession, not as window dressing. That is precisely how they should be treated, and how they want to be treated — as professional colleagues.

I know I’m not the only person who thinks the "booth babe" approach is wrong. I discussed this with several people I know, men and women, and the majority were bothered by it as well. I think the blog posts by Marcus Ranum and Chenxi Wang sum up some of the different reactions quite well. Winn Schwartau actually captured this and many of my other frustrations with the exhibits in one wonderful article.

My message to the vendors: start treating all of us as thinking adults. Focus on the value proposition of your products and services and you'll get a much better response.

Summary

I think it was overall a good experience. I hope to attend next year’s conference, and I look forward to seeing old and new friends, maybe hearing something innovative, and seeing a change in the way exhibitors are showing off their wares. We shall see.

Telling the Future, Looking at the Past: A Few Short Items

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I have continued to update my earlier post about women in cybersecurity. Recent additions include links to some scholarship opportunities offered by ACSA and the (ISC)2 Foundation. Both scholarship opportunities have deadlines in the coming weeks, so look at them soon if you are interested.

The 15th Annual Security Symposium is less than a month away! Registration is still open but filling quickly. If you register for the Symposium, or for the 9th ICCWS held immediately prior, you can get a discount on the other event. Thus, you should think about attending both and saving on the registration costs! See the link for more details.

I periodically post an item to better define my various social media presences. If you follow me (Spaf) and either wonder why I post in multiple venues, or want to read even more of my musings, then take a look at it.

I ran across one of my old entries in this blog — from October 2007 — that had predictions for the future of the field. In rereading them, I think I did pretty well, although some of the predictions were rather obvious. What do you think?

Sometime in the next week or so (assuming the polar vortex and ice giants don’t get me) I will post some of my reflections on the RSA 2014 conference. However, if you want a sneak peek at what I think about what I saw on the display floor and after listening to some of the talks, you can read another of my old blog entries — things haven’t changed much.

If you are bored or morbidly curious…

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The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota is devoted to research and preservation of the history of computing. They have amassed an interesting collection of literature and memorabilia that shows the history of the field.

One of the projects associated with the CBI is to gather oral histories of notable figures in the field of computing security. They have some fascinating oral histories of people including Willis Ware, Peter Neumann, Becky Bace, Roger Schell, Donn Parker and others, as well as lots of oral histories in other subfields of computing. You can find the full set online.

In July, there will be a workshop on the history of computing security. CBI has issued a call for papers. This effort is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Late last year, Jeff Yost of the CBI visited Purdue to conduct an interview with me. He got a lot of material out of me, including some anecdotes that I don’t think I have ever related to anyone else before. We spent a good portion of a day going through this. It’s long.

I question how many people might really want to read through the whole thing, but if you’re interested in some of the history of the security program at Purdue, how I ended up at Purdue, my start in software engineering, my initial work in digital forensics, how I got involved in security, or any of a bunch of other topics likely to be of little or no interest to most people, then you can check out my oral history at CBI.

I’ve mentioned a lot of students, colleagues, and influences by name. If you’re one of them, I hope what I said doesn’t bother you! (Unless I intended it to bother you, in which case…. grin

I don’t think I said anything unduly embarrassing, and I’m actually happy to have documented some of the history of how CERIAS got started. So, if that kind of thing floats your boat (or balances your parity), then check it out.

You’re invited!

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Four days -- two major events!




The 15th Annual CERIAS Security Symposium

Purdue University, March 26-27, 2014

We're living in a time of transition. Cyberthreats are increasing and becoming more sophisticated, victimized organizations are cooperating with competitors and fighting back, and the discussion of expected privacy has become front-page news. These topics, and more, will be explored at the 15th Annual CERIAS Security Symposium. Join the conversation amongst academic educators and researchers, commercial R&D engineers, government researchers, and industry practitioners as we examine the current state, possible solutions and emerging technologies addressing issues of information assurance, security, privacy and cybercrime.

CERIAS Symposium activities will include:

Keynotes:

Amy S. Hess
Executive Assistant Director of Science and Technology, Federal Bureau of Investigation
George Kurtz
President/CEO and Co-Founder, CrowdStrike

Featured Technical Presentation:

Josh Corman
Chief Technology Officer, Sonatype

Panel Discussions:

  • APT, Threat Actors and Trends in Cybercrime
  • Sharing Incident Data While Under Attack

A "Two Views" Discussion

  • Security Plus (not Versus) Privacy
    Featuring:
  • David Medine, chair of the Federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB)
  • Mark Rasch, Chief Privacy Officer of SAIC

Security Research and Project Poster Session

Featuring a selection of the 60+ projects currently in progress by by CERIAS faculty and students. Meet the researchers while hearing about their work.

Networking Opportunities

The event has a number of built-in opportunities for social and professional networking, and exploration of new opportunities. CERIAS partners will be provided an exclusive opportunity for recruiting CERIAS students for internships and employment; non-partners can find out more about joining the CERIAS consortium. Attendees may also schedule other visits and tours while on campus.

For more information and to register visit:

http://www.cerias.purdue.edu/site/symposium2014/



The 9th Annual International Conference on Cyber Warfare and Security

Purdue University, March 24-25, 2014

CERIAS Symposium attendees are invited to join the ICCWS conference being held the two days prior to the CERIAS Symposium. The ICCWS provides an opportunity for the cyber warfare and security community of interest and practice to gather and exchange their views on the current state of the security research, governance and implementation. The conference is intended to draw an audience of practitioners, researchers, consultants and regulators from academia, business and government.

CERIAS Symposium attendees will receive a discount off ICCWS registration. For more information on ICCWS-2014 visit:
http://academic-conferences.org/iciw/iciw2014/iciw14-home.htm




We hope to see you at Purdue the week of March 24!

Another Loss in the Community

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I received news today that Yves Deswarte passed away on January 27th.

YD-2010b.jpgDr. Deswarte was a notable member of the computing community, with a career of 30+ years as an educator, researcher, and manager. His career as a computing research pioneer spanned issues ranging from fault-tolerant computing to microcomputer systems to networking to issues of identity and privacy to system safety, and more. His most recent affiliation was with theLAAS-CNRS; the Laboratory for Analysis of Architecture of Systems at the French National Center for Research in Toulouse. He also had been an engineer and manager at INRIA, and spent time with SRI and at Microsoft Labs in Cambridge (with the late Roger Needham). Some of his more recent work involved the security of cloud and embedded systems.

Yves was the deserving recipient of the 2012 IFIP TC-11 Kristian Beckman Award and an award for Outstanding Service to IFIP. His acceptance address for the Beckman was devoted to issues of identity and privacy — topics which had been central to some of his research in recent years. In addition to his research and his work with IFIP, Dr. Deswarte was also notable for his work with ESORICS, and for the Ph.D. students whose work he advised: his webpage lists 20 Ph.D. graduates advised, and 5 in progress.

A memorial page for Dr. Deswarte has been established at LAAS.

I only met Yves once or twice, and our work only occasionally brought us into contact. Interestingly, his path in computing had some parallels to mine — he was working fault-tolerant computing (the SURF project) about the time I was (as a grad student), and then moved into security and privacy issues. I have known of him and his work for most of my career in computing, but unfortunately did not have the opportunity to get to know him well in person. I am undoubtedly not doing justice to his many contributions with the meager account above, and I would welcome comments from those who knew him better.

I have written memorium pieces for many people in the field over the last few years, most recently Willis Ware. Yves is closer to my age than most of them, so that makes is a little more personal. It is a sign that the field is maturing as we begin to lose our colleagues, but that is hardly any solace.   

R.I.P. Yves Deswarte, 1949-2014.