“The path to hell starts with the back door, and we need to ensure that encryption technology remains strong,” said Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer, Microsoft at the RSA 2016 Conference.
The RSA Conference is the annual confab where the world talks security. The 2016 event, with the theme “Connect to Protect,” was held Feb. 29 – Mar. 4 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. As you might expect, the FBI versus Apple battle was the talk-of-the-show, not only in the casual hallway chatter but also in the keynote sessions. A sign if the increasing importance of cyber security, RSA 2016 posted record attendance of over 40,000, up almost 20% from 33,000 last year.
While much of highly technical conference is committed to workshops, seminars, panels, vendor sessions and exhibits, the keynote presentations tend to highlight the major directions and issues of the cyber security industry. This year’s keynote speakers included heavy hitters such as U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Chris Palmer, U.S. State Department Coordinator for Cyber Issues, and Admiral Michael Rogers, Commander, U.S. Cyber Command; Director of the National Security Agency/Chief Central Security Service.
Industry executives and leading cryptographers were clearly supporting Apple with their keynote comments. RSA president Amit Yoran said “Weakening encryption is solely for the ease and convenience of law enforcement. If we weaken our encryption, you can be sure the bad guys will use it against us.”
Probably the most direct statement was made by Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer for Microsoft. “When it comes to security, there is no technology that is more important than encryption,” said Smith. “The path to hell starts with the back door, and we need to ensure that encryption technology remains strong.”
It was also clear that the industry speakers felt that it was very important to have a thorough dialogue on the issue. RSA President Yoran stated “We need to be respectful but we also must make sure that our voices are heard loud and clear.”
This thought was echoed by several government speakers starting with Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, when he told the audience the issues at stake are “so fundamental and so important to us as a nation that I believe our citizens need to be the ones who say ‘This is what we are comfortable this is what we are not comfortable with. This is acceptable to us and this is not. … It’s time for all of us to stop talking past each other and start talking to and with each other.”
As the most senior law enforcement official in the U.S., Attorney General Loretta Lynch was clearly aware of the conflicts that can arise between security and privacy in our use of technology. “…in the years to come, our use of this technology will only grow and develop further. We are in the midst of an exciting and revolutionary transformation that is undoubtedly making our lives more convenient and our society more efficient,” said Lynch. “But it has also opened new avenues for a variety of wrongdoers, from thieves and hackers to terrorists, other violent extremists, and state-sponsored actors.”
Lynch continued “…law enforcement’s mission is to protect public safety and ensure that criminals are caught and held accountable. That is a goal that I know we all share. I know that neither our technology companies nor their leaders have any sympathy for the terrorists or criminals who target Americans. And the Department of Justice will never sacrifice the safety of the American people or the ideals that we all cherish.”
In closing, Lynch echoed the collaboration theme, saying “In order to surmount the obstacles we will surely encounter, we don’t necessarily have to be locked in perpetual and perfect agreement – but we do have to be engaged in open dialogue, so that we can draw upon each other’s resources, hear each other’s concerns, and learn from each other’s perspectives. That’s how we spur new ideas, forge better solutions, and find the way forward.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter also reinforced the “join forces” theme in a conversation with Ted Schlein, general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers regarding technology innovation and cyber-security.
The past few years have seen an increase not only in the number of attacks on business and government systems, but an also an increase in sophistication and impact. Cyber-attacks have led to huge amounts of lost data, millions of angry customers and billions of dollars in losses. It is clear that industry and government must work together to get ahead of the “black hats” – and it is great that both sides recognize this. It may well be that the RSA Conference will be THE most important hi-tech industry event for the foreseeable future.