CERIAS - Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Skip Navigation
Purdue University - Discovery Park
Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security


Page Content

Initial Thoughts on the RSA 2015 Conference


One again I have submitted myself to a week of talks, exhibits, walking, meetings, drinking, meetings, and more with 40,000 close associates (with one more day of it tomorrow). It’s the annual RSA conference in San Francisco. I’ve been to about 8, including the last 5.

Prior to starting this entry, I reread my blog post from after the 2014 RSA Conference. Not a lot has changed, at least as far as talks and exhibits. Pretty much everything I wrote last year is still accurate, so you can read that first. There were a few differences, and I’ll describe the prominent ones below.

Once again, I got pulled into meetings and conversations, so I didn’t attend as many of the talks as I really wanted. I caught portions of several, and I was impressed with more this year than last — I sensed less marketing. Thus, kudos to the program committee (and speakers). I am sorry I didn’t get to hear more of the talks. I hope they were recorded for us to view later.

Foremost differences from last year occurred outside the Moscone Center and on the exhibit floor — there was no boycott against RSA about alleged NSA collaboration, and the conference organizers adopted a policy against “booth babes” — yay! I don’t think I need to write about things that weren’t there this year, but I will say a big “thank you” to the RSA Conference team for the latter — it was a very welcome change.

  1. Last year’s big buzz phrase was “threat intelligence” with “big data” coming in second. This year, it was “IoT” with maybe “cloud” as second. i didn’t see much mention of “big data” in the materials or on the booths. There was some use of the term in presentations, however.
  2. Out of 400 booths I really only saw 2 or 3 totally new concepts. All the other products and services on display were either holdovers from prior years, of variations on older ideas.
  3. Many of the booth personnel were more cynical than last year about the conference, the field, their products, etc. This marks an interesting change: in prior years I barely detected cynicism.
  4. There seemed to be a little more international representation than last year — companies originating in other countries (Germany, Japan, China, Sweden, Korea, Taiwan, and Israel are ones I can recall).

I still did not speak in a session (even as a fill-in), it still costs quite a bit to attend, I still didn’t see many academics I knew,  

I saw only 3 products that were devoted to building secure systems — everything else was patching, monitoring, remediation, and training. That continues to be depressing.

Still the case there was limited emphasis on or solutions for privacy.

Andy Ellis provided me shielding for my badge so I could avoid being scanned onto mailing lists. I told people at most booths, but they tried anyhow. Some would try repeatedly, then tell me they couldn’t scan my badge. Duh! I just told you that! However, in every case, they still gave me a T-shirt or other swag.

Speaking of swag, this year, the top 3 raffle items were drones, Go-Pro cameras, and iWatches.

A few booths were very aggressive in trying to scan people. It almost felt like desperation. I had to duck and weave (not easy with a cracked rib) to avoid a few of those people and get past their booths. It felt like being in a video game.

This year, more vendors seemed willing to talk about donating their products to our (CERIAS) teaching and research labs. That is really promising, and helps our students a lot. (And, hint — it provides great visibility for the products, so you vendors can still do it!)

So, if I find the conference a little depressing, why do I still go? As I noted last year, besides hearing about trends and getting a stock of T-shirts, it is a great opportunity to see friends and acquaintances I don’t get to see that often otherwise because I have limited time and funds for travel. (And yes, Indiana is at the center of the known universe, but few flights stop here.) I have had some great conversations with these people — thought leaders and deep thinkers across the spectrum of infosec/cyber/etc.

Actually, it occurred to me over drinks that if I wanted to cause maximum disruption, I could have infected these highly-connected people with some awful disease, and within 72 hours they would have infected almost everyone in the field who have some level of clue. Luckily for the world, they only had to put up with my presence for a few minutes or so, each, and that isn’t contagious.

Here’s a partial list of the people I was happy to see (there were more, but this is who I can remember right now — my apologies for anyone I missed; plus, I may see more in the closing session tomorrow): Candy Alexander, Becky Bace, Robert Bigman, Bob Blakely, Josh Corman, Sam Curry, Jack Daniel, Michelle Dennedy, Matt Devost, Whit Diffie, Andy Ellis, Karen Evans, Dickie George, Greg Hogland, Brian Honan, Alex Hutton, Andrew Jacquith, Toney Jennings, John Johsnson, Gene Kim, Brian Krebs, Penny Leavy, Martin Libicki, Rich Marshall, Gary McGraw, Martin McKeay, Carey Nachenberg, Wendy Nather, Davi Ottenheimer, Andy Ozment, Kevin Poulsin, Paul Rosenzweig, Scott Rotondo, Marc Sachs, Howard Schmidt, Bruce Schneier, Corey Schou, Winn Schwartau, Chenxi Wang, Mark Weatherford, Bob West, Ira Winkler, and Amit Yoran.

Yes, I do know a rather eclectic set of people. Their karma must be bad, because they also know me.

Speaking of karma, I’m already planning to go to RSA 2016.

Buy a book for entertainment and for charity


I’ve known Carey Nachenberg, a Fellow at Symantec, for many, many years. He’s one of the driving forces behind Symantec’s anti-malware software. He’s creative and passionate about cyber security. He’s also an avid rock climber, a teacher, and several other things that make him an interesting person to know.

Now Carey is also a published author of fiction: the adventure novel The Florentine Deception.1425186604.png

I can recommend the book for several reasons. First, it’s an engaging story, with several convincing core plot devices — Carey has taken several of his passions and woven them together into the story. Second, all the proceeds go to charities. Carey has selected several worthwhile causes, and the more books people buy, the more the charities benefit. And third, there is this really odd coincidence that ties Carey’s plot to something a cyber security hack researcher actually wrote about 20 years ago and describes in the Foreword. Carey intended the book as fiction, but it could also be a cautionary tale…or a somewhat embellished version of something frightening that really happened?

As a freshman outing in fiction, the book could have used a little more editing, but still provides a good read. As a tale of unexpected consequences, it really nails one of several cyber issues that has received insufficient consideration. And as an effort to support some worthwhile causes, how can it possibly be ignored?

I encourage you to visit the website for the book, and follow one of the links to purchase a copy. Then enjoy the read, and think about what The Florentine Deception might really mean.

CERIAS 2015 Symposium Now Online!


The 2015 CERIAS symposium — held March 24 & 25, 2015 — was wonderful! We had a great array of speakers and panels, and one of our largest audiences in years. The talks were fascinating, the panels provocative, and the student research exciting (as usual).

Featured speakers included Sam Curry, CTO and CSO, Arbor Networks; Deborah Frincke, Director of Research, NSA/CSS; and Michelle Dennedy, VP & CPO McAfee/Intel Security.

If you were there and want to hear a repeat of a talk, or if you didn’t make it to the symposium and want to hear what went on, visit our website. We have videos of all the talks and panels plus links to the student research posters and other materials. Similar materials from our 2014 symposium are still online, too!

We haven’t yet set the dates for the 2016 CERIAS Symposium, but stay tuned for that.

What is wrong with all of you? Reflections on nude pictures, victim shaming, and cyber security


[This blog post was co-authored by Professor Samuel Liles and Spaf.]

.Over the last few days we have seen a considerable flow of news and social media coverage of untended exposure of celebrity photographs (e.g., here). Many (most?) of these photos were of attractive females in varying states of undress, and this undoubtedly added to the buzz.

We have seen commentary from some in the field of cybersecurity, as well as more generally-focused pundits, stating that the subjects of these photos “should have known better.” These commentators claim that it is generally known that passwords/cloud storage/phones have weak security, so the victims only have themselves to blame.

We find these kinds of comments ill-informed, disappointing, and in many cases, repugnant.

First, we note that the victims of these leaks were not trained in cyber security or computing. When someone falls ill, we don’t blame her for not having performed studies in advanced medicine. When someone’s car breaks down, we don’t blame him for failing to have a degree in mechanical engineering. Few people are deeply versed in fields well outside their profession.

The people involved in these unauthorized exposures apparently took prudent measures they were instructed to on the systems as they were designed. As an example, the passwords used must have passed the checks in place or they would not have been able to set them. It doesn’t matter if we approve of the passwords that passed those automated checks -- they were appropriate to the technical controls in place. What the people stored, how they did it, or the social bias against their state of dress has nothing to do with this particular issue.

Quite simply, the protection mechanisms were not up to the level of the information being protected. That is not the users’ fault. They were using market standards, represented as being secure. For instance, it is admitted that Apple products were among those involved (and that is the example in some of our links). People have been told for almost a decade that the iOS and Apple ecosystem is much more secure than other environments. That may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn’t take into account the persistent, group effort that appears to have been involved in this episode, or some of the other criminal deviants working in groups online. We have met a few actresses and models, and many young people. They don’t think of risk in the same way security professionals do, and having them depend on standard technology alone is clearly insufficient against such a determined threat.

Consider: assume you live in a nice house. You’ve got windows, doors, and locks on those windows and doors. You likely have some kind of curtains or window coverings. If you live in a house, even a house with no yard, if you close your curtains we accept that as a request for privacy. If I walk up on the sidewalk and attempt to peer into your windows, that is being a “peeping tom.” Even though I might have every right to stand on the sidewalk, face the direction I’m looking, and stop or pause, I do not have the right to violate your privacy.

Consider: Your house has a nice solid door with a nice lock. That lock likely has orders of magnitude less entropy than a password. Every night you walk through your house, lock your doors, and you go to sleep believing you are likely safe. Yet, that lock and that door will not stop a group of determined, well-equipped attackers or likely even slow them down. The police will not arrive for some amount of time and effective self-protection against unexpected provocation by a gang is uncertain, at best. As a polite and law-abiding society, we respect the door and the lock, and expect others to do the same. We understand that the door and lock keep honest people honest. They set a barrier to entry for criminals. Burglaries still happen and we use the power of law to enact punishment against criminals, although many crimes go unsolved.

If an unauthorized entry to your house occurs, whether by picking the lock, climbing through the window, or discovering a loose set of boards in the wall, we would never blame you, the victim — it is clear that the person who entered, unbidden, was to blame. Some of our peers would try to blame the companies that made the locks and windows, rather than acknowledge the bad intent of the burglar. Too many people in information security tend to think we can always build better locks, or that having “white hats” continually picking locks somehow will lead to them being unpickable. Many are so enamored of the technology of those locks and the pastime of picking them that they will blame the victim instead of anything to do with the production or design of the locks themselves. (This is not a new phenomenon: Spafford wrote about this topic 22 years ago.)

One fundamental error here is that all locks are by design meant to be opened. Furthermore, the common thinking ignores the many failures (and subsequent losses) before any "super lock" might appear. We also observe that few will be able to afford any super-duper unpickable locks, or carry the 20-pound key necessary to operate them. Technological protections must be combined with social and legal controls to be effective.

This leads to our second major point.

Imagine if that burglary occurred at your house, and you suffered a major loss because the agent of the crime discovered your artwork or coin collection. We would not dream of blaming you for the loss, somehow implying that you were responsible by having your possessions stored in your house. If somebody were to say anything like that, we would reproach them for blaming/shaming the victim. Society in general would not try to castigate you for having possessions that others might want to steal.

Unfortunately, many computer professionals (and too many others, outside the profession) have the mindset that crimes on computers are somehow the fault of the victim (and this has been the case for many years). We must stop blaming the victims in cases such as this, especially when what they were doing was not illegal. We see criticism of their activities instead of the privacy invasion as blaming/shaming no less atrocious as that of how rape victims are treated — and that is also usually badly, unfortunately.

If we give users lousy technology and tell them it is safe, they use it according to directions, and they do not understand its limitations, they should not be blamed for the consequences. That is true of any technology. The fault lies with the providers and those who provide vague assurances about it. Too bad we let those providers get away with legally disclaiming all responsibility.

We are sympathetic to the argument that these exposures of images should perhaps be considered as a sex crime. They were acts of taking something without permission that violated the privacy and perceptions of safety of the victim for the sexual gratification and sense of empowerment of the perpetrator (and possibly also other reasons). Revenge porn, stalking, assault, and rape are similar...and we should not blame the victims for those acts, either. The sexually-themed abuse of female journalists and bloggers is also in this category -- and if you aren't aware of it, then you should be: women who write things online that some disagree with will get threats of violence (including rape), get abusive and pornographic messaging and images (deluges of it), and called incredibly offensive names...sometimes for years. It is beyond bullying and into something that should be more actively abhorred.

Some male members of the cyber security community are particularly bad in their treatment of women, too.

Between the two of us, Sam and Spaf, we have served as professors, counselors, and one of us (Liles) as a law enforcement officer; we have well over 50 years combined professional experience with both victims and bad behavior of their abusers. We have counseled female students and colleagues who have been stalked and harassed online for years. They keep encountering law enforcement officials and technologists who ask "What are you doing to encourage this?" None of them encourage it, and some live in real terror 24x7 of what their stalkers will do next. Some have had pictures posted that are mortifying to them and their loved ones, they've lost jobs, had to move, withdraw from on-line fora, lost relationships, and even change their names and those of their children. This can last for years.

Sexual offenders blame the victim to absolve themselves of responsibility, and thus, guilt. "She was acting suggestively," "she was dressed that way," etc. If the people around them chime in and blame the victim, they are excusing the criminal -- they are reinforcing the idea that somehow the victim provoked it and the abuser "obviously couldn't help himself.” They thus add unwarranted guilt and shame to the victim while excusing the criminal. We generally reject this with offenses against children, realizing that the children are not responsible for being abused. We must stop blaming all adult victims (mostly female, but others also get abused this way), too.

Victim blaming (and the offensively named slut shaming -- these aren't "sluts," they are victimized women) must STOP. Do you side with privacy rights and protection of the public, or with the rapists and abusers? There is no defendable middle ground in these cases.

We are also horrified by the behavior of some of the media surrounding this case. The crimes have been labeled as leaks, which trivializes the purposeful invasion and degradation performed. Many outlets provided links to the pictures, as did at least one well-known blogger. That illustrates everything wrong about the paparazzi culture, expressed via computer. To present these acts as somehow accidental (“leak”) and blame the victims not only compounds the damage, but glosses over the underlying story — this appears to be the result of a long-term criminal conspiracy of peeping toms using technologies to gather information for the purpose of attacking the privacy of women. This has allegedly been going on for years and law enforcement has apparently had almost no previous interest in the cases — why isn’t that the lead story? The purposeful exploitation of computer systems and exposure of people's private information is criminal. Some pundits only began to indicate concern when it was discovered that some of the pictures were of children.

It is clear we have a long way to go as a society. We need to do a better job of building strong technology and then deploying it so that it can be used correctly. We need to come up with better social norms and legal controls to hold miscreants accountable. We need better tools and training for law enforcement to investigate cyber crimes without also creating openings for them to be the ones who are regularly violating privacy. We need to find better ways of informing the public how to make cyber risk-related decisions.

But most of all, we need to find our collective hearts. Instead of idealizing and idolizing the technology with which we labor, deflecting criticisms for faults onto victims and vendors, we need to do a much better job of understanding the humanity — including both strengths and weaknesses — of the people who depend on that technology. The privacy violations, credit card fraud, espionage, harassment, and identity thefts all have real people as victims. Cyber security is, at its core, protecting people, and the sooner we all take that to heart, the better.

Videos from the 15th Annual CERIAS Symposium


We are now releasing videos of our sessions at this year’s CERIAS Symposium from late March.

We had a fascinating session with David Medine, chair of the PCLOB discussing privacy and government surveillance with Mark Rasch, currently the CPO for SAIC. If you are interested in the issues of security, counterterrorism, privacy, and/or government surveillance, you will probably find this interesting:

We are also making available videos of some of our other speakers — Amy Hess, Exec. Deputy Director of the FBI; George Kurtz, President & CEO of CrowdStrike; Josh Corman, CTO of Sonatype; and two of our other panel sessions: http://www.cerias.purdue.edu/site/symposium_video/

(You have to put up with my introductions of the speakers, but into every life a little rain must fall.)

That was the 15th Annual CERIAS Symposium. Planning for the 16th Symposium is underway for March 24 & 25, 2015: http://www.cerias.purdue.edu/site/symposium2015