Some Musings on the RSA Conference

A great RSA Conference in San Francisco concludes today. Attendance was down noticeably compared to last year, no doubt because of fears related to COVID-19 and the pullout of several key exhibitors, including AT&T Cybersecurity, IBM, Verizon, and six of the nine Chinese vendors. That said, there were 614 vendors exhibiting this year compared to 624 last year, so without the (possibly) overblown fear of the Coronavirus, there would have been a year-on-year increase in exhibitors.

Here are a few takeaways and comments:

Wendy Nather gave a very interesting keynote that discussed the need for democratizing security instead of continuing the current top-down, somewhat autocratic security model that is in place today. As noted in a Dark Reading article on the topic and reiterated in the keynote, Wendy said, “I’m going to argue that we should be teaching kids not to comply with somebody else’s security system, but to make good security decisions on their own from an early age — which means we have to get rid of parental controls. We should be teaching kids to make the right decisions with the devices that they are using.” She applied more or less the same thinking for corporate users.

While I am completely on-board with teaching good cyber security practices to users, we need to keep in mind that security is not just about doing the right things. It’s also about defending against a sophisticated, well-funded, malicious, very intentional, and sometimes just plain mean adversary. This is not just about users making good security decisions, as important as that is, but it’s also about enabling security teams to have autocratic authority when it best serves the needs of the company footing the bill and taking the risks. IMO, the best security model lies somewhere between autocracy and the democracy that Wendy proposes.

One of the more interesting products discussed at RSA was Anomali’s Lens+, a web content parser that uses natural language processing to highlight cyber threat information. Lens+ is a browser plug-in that can be configured to highlight text in web pages based on various criteria. It enables threat researchers and others to view web-based threat bulletins, social media posts, articles and other web content and have highlighted for them information related to threat actors, attack techniques, malware families, and other relevant information. Plus, it enables researchers to understand if their organization has instances of these threats already present in their network, and it supports the MITRE ATT&CK framework by showing the TTPs discussed in the content they’re viewing.

Lens+ has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of time that threat researchers spend reading threat bulletins and other content related to their work. Plus, I can see enormous applicability well beyond this space, such as enabling employees to gain additional information about the content they’re reading across a wide variety of subject areas.

There was a very interesting — and fairly contentious — keynote panel led by Craig Spiezle, founder of Agelight Advisory and Research Group entitled, “How to Reduce Supply Chain Risk: Lessons from Efforts to Block Huawei”. The panel members included Katie Arrington, CISO of Acquisitions for the Department of Defense (which can no longer legally purchase from Huawei); Andy Purdy, the CSO of Huawei; Bruce Schneier from the Harvard Kennedy School; and Kathryn Waldron, a Fellow at the R Street Institute.

Craig, who would have been well served in this session had his former career been that of boxing referee, did a good job at managing the group and keeping panel members more or less on topic. While the session shed more heat than light on supply chain management, with personal political preferences leaking through at times, it highlighted the importance of prioritizing where security dollars need to be spent, since there is no way to make everything secure. As Schneier noted, securing the supply chain is an “insurmountable” problem. Whether that’s true or not is certainly up for debate.

All in all, a great RSA and probably the most enjoyable since I started attending 16+ years ago.