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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

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.

Comments

Posted by Linda McCarthy
on Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 05:48 PM

Thank you so much for pointing out how insulting the booth babe issue is. Also, thanks for taking the time to write about RSA. I also agree that the so called “boycott” did not work. I think 50,000 people attended this year. I believe that’s a record for RSA.

Posted by Ram Dantu
on Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 08:56 PM

Gene, did you see any new topics
in the security research/development ??

I attended some sessions on IoT (internet of things) and SDN but did not see any new ideas there. Any thoughts ??

One interesting thing to note is about Diffie’s hardware devices for IoT.

On the other hands I could not find may T shirts of size “L”. Most of them are extra large!!

Ram

==========
Spaf sez:  No, as I noted, I really didn’t see anything new.

Posted by Jose
on Monday, April 7, 2014 at 01:08 AM

although it takes half an hour to read this article, but i tell you what it was awesome.

Posted by Kelley Misata
on Monday, April 7, 2014 at 07:47 AM

Spaf - Thank you once again for raising the issue of around the “booth babes” from a sincere, humorous and insightful view.  For what it’s worth, I chose NOT to go to RSA this year, mainly because the “scene” in and out of the event was exactly how you described.  Thankfully there are many security conferences happening around world - the challenge comes in choosing the one(s) that provide the best value.  Hopefully RSA will make some changes for next year.  On a positive note, the Women in Cyber Security conference is just around the corner - looking forward to helping to continue these conversations.

Posted by Winn Schwartau
on Monday, April 7, 2014 at 02:05 PM

Spaf… good running into you… and your post is 100% sync with mine from the year prior. Keep it up!

Posted by Sofia Rhodes
on Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at 01:25 AM

Being frank… Before I started reading, I thought, this will take at least 40 minutes of my time. Then, I dared to read and I must say I am very lucky that I read this post. It feels awesome when we read someone’s experience. I changed my mind and will attend the next conference for sure. I hope, we can meet and I am really excited to make new friends over there. I hope I’ll find my size of T-shirt though.!!

Posted by mad.madrasi
on Monday, April 21, 2014 at 04:00 AM

I thought of just glancing through what at first appeared to be ‘Oh I was there too at RSAC’ article.  In the end I am glad that I read on.

I agree with almost all the points you raised:
a) a pointless boycott of RSAC
b) booth babes
c) Huawei USB stick giveaways - double wow!

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