A Note on the RSA Keynote Fiasco…

In the past day or two, The RSA Conference announced a few of the keynotes for the upcoming 2016 RSAC conference. The industry is largely scoffing at some of their choices, for obvious reasons. There are so many facets to this topic, one could write a book. Hopefully I will limit myself to the key points, as applies to the chatter in our industry. If a couple paragraphs are meh to you, skip down a few, as the point will likely change quite a bit.

First, let’s put this into perspective. This is the RSA conference. The Computer Dealers’ Exhibition (COMDEX) of the InfoSec industry. This conference is a weird mix of “OMG necessary” and “OMG I hate it“, and it has been for a decade or more. It’s the party everyone shows up to, and the one you want to be at, to ‘be seen’ and ‘catch up on the gossip’, even though you hate it. In our industry, it is the embodiment of reality T.V. in many ways. On the flip side, this conference hasn’t actually been relevant to our industry for a long time, where reality T.V. is sadly relevant in the worst ways. Sure, it is THE place to do a meet-and-greet, solicit new customers, solicit new employees, and show off your stupid “advances” in security technology. Advances in quotes for a blindingly obvious reason. But, if you feel RSAC is relevant in any meaningful way to our industry, you can stop reading here. You are not my intended audience, and do not meet the “you must have this IQ to ride this ride” criteria. Sorry =( I feel this point is almost entirely lost on the 2016 RSA keynote fiasco.

On the “keynote” angle, first… what is a “keynote” talk? You can’t even Google “keynote” and get the definition in the first few results. You actually have to qualify “keynote definition” which I can’t recall ever having to do for Google to get a definition. Even for some pretty obscure animal-related searches I have done while trying to learn as much about wildlife rehabilitation as I could. That is telling.

Now, I called this bit out in my BSidesDC “keynote” presentation in 2014, where I questioned what a keynote was, in my keynote. How very “meta”, and how very appropriate given I picked on RSAC back then. Look to slide 5 where I pointed out that RSAC had as many as four keynotes a day back then, 16 in total. So again… what is a keynote? For most conferences, it is very clear, per the definition. It “sets the intended tone of the conference” in so many words. For RSAC? It is more a game of how many “big” speakers can we cram into a multi-day event to fill the seats. [Remember, many of them may be in our industry, but it doesn’t mean they bring any value to the rest of us.]

This latest fiasco is no different. So… back to the controversy. RSA stacked the keynote deck with the usual nobodies (in the context of providing real value to our industry, or if an awesome person, not in the context of a 40 minute talk). This year, they went above and beyond, and are having three people in the keynote lineup that are more than questionable. I’m sure it isn’t the first time we have seen it, but it sticks in my mind… RSAC set up a “keynote panel”. For most conferences, that would be laughable, but in 2014 they had 16 keynotes. Compare that to this year, with 20 keynotes on the schedule so far! Two minorities, and one female, if you are keeping track after the last two years of our industry pointing out the lack of diversity. Maybe RSA will say it is a good sample representation to be politically correct, given the representation in the industry!! So… the three speakers making waves, well before the conference starts?

  • Charley Koontz, Actor, CSI: Cyber Panel
  • Shad Moss, Actor, CSI: Cyber Panel
  • Anthony E. Zuiker, Creator/Executive Producer of the CSI Franchise, Technology Visionary

It is honestly difficult to figure out how to approach this, in the sense of writing this blog. This show has been lambasted from day one within the InfoSec industry. Worse, it has deviated from the CSI franchise in ways that are arguably more harmful to the public than the predecessors. The last 15 years of the other CSI shows have created the “CSI Effect“, which has been a burden on our current legal system. It took many years of the original CSI franchise to give us that modern problem, that interferes with our judicial system on a daily basis. We are all arm-chair experts on DNA, trace matter, footprints, dark crime scenes, and flashlights. That is a T.V. show born out of a 30+ year scientific discipline. And it has serious backlash in the real world.

Now, we have CSI: Cyber, which is easily argued to be the worst of the franchise. Looking at ‘Rotten Tomatoes‘, well-known for providing real-world reviews of movies, what do they say about the entire CSI franchise?

rotten-tomatoes-csi

Wow… enough people hated CSI: Cyber to contribute their opinion, where the original CSI show that ran 15 years didn’t get enough feedback to rate. The original show was ground-breaking, in many ways. It introduced the average American household to the world of forensics, even if exaggerated and dramatized to some degree. Jump to today, and enough have spoken out against the new spinoff to give it a negative rating. That is telling.

OK OK, so jump back a bit, because this is not an easy blog to write. The entire CSI franchise is questionable; it has some serious value, but also has some serious pitfalls. So let’s try to focus on CSI: Cyber. Start by doing a Google search:

google-csi-cyber2

Woops, that is telling. It also reminds me that the series got renewed for season 2, which I bet would happen to an FBI agent I know (who refuses to watch the show, as does the entire ‘Cyber’ division in his city). If it gets renewed for season 3, I lose a dollar. OK, seriously sidetracked. Back to the latest drama..

Cliff notes: three people related to CSI: Cyber are part of the RSAC 2016 keynote clustermess this year. Two actors, and an executive producer putting himself forward as much more than that (or RSAC is), are part of a panel that is a keynote. Every bit of the InfoSec fiber is not happy with this, and they shouldn’t be. RSAC is grabbing what is popular, what is in the ‘mainstream’, and vomiting it on stage. No care, no concern, and most importantly, no consideration of what it means. Of the two actors, do either have any background in computers? Security? One is a very young rapper-turned-actor who I previously Tweeted to, because I felt his portrayal as an African American actor in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement was absolutely horrible. I’m a privileged white guy and I felt that episode was a disgrace to African Americans (do the math). The other is “sympathetic to the issues” according to Violet Blue, in an article she wrote on this topic. If Koontz is truly sympathetic, he should either back out of the talk accompanied by a public statement, or use the stage-time to go against the very reason he was invited. Embrace the fact he is a T.V. actor, that the show is lacking in technical detail or reality, and call out the technical advisors and/or producers, and let the world know why the show may be harmful. As for the producer, why? It could be argued there is value if one of the technical consultants to the show were to speak, not a producer.

It should be obvious that I do not think any of them are relevant, or should be keynoting a BSides, let alone RSAC. They are actors in a mid-ratings show, built on a 15 year-old franchise. A current iteration that isn’t really that popular or well-known… merely “what some people are watching”. RSAC is quite simply cashing in on a popular meme, in line with the profitable business.

So… let’s agree to agree, or agree to disagree! Yep, how is that for a blog plot twist, befitting that horrible T.V. show? Let’s focus on the small bit that actually got my attention in all this, that demanded all of the above as backstory and explanation. Let’s jump to the other fun bit of this mess. While most of the industry was somewhere between annoyed and outraged over these keynotes being announced, others quipped in ways that suggested the industry wouldn’t be so upset if it was “other” high-profile media-centric personalities that were keynoting.

rsac-fiasco-actors_from_hackers

I’d like to assume the ellipses were leading off to the obvious conclusion, “we would ridicule them just the same“. But I have a feeling that was not the intended argument. That movie is 20 years old, released on the fourth year of RSAC. Assuming you at least meant to compare the cast being keynotes at the 1995 RSAC… this is actually a more compelling comparison as far as a “timely” media publication being thrust upon our industry. Back then, I don’t think it would have been considered. I say that because some of us in the hacker circles back then joked about them speaking at DEFCON and how absurd it would have been.

rsac-fiasco-colbert_baldwin

This is a fascinating comment, because it puts two polar opposites as a single argument that somehow has the same merit, which is baffling to say the least (compare Colbert vs Baldwin in the context of ‘actor’ vs ‘comedian’). If your argument for comparison is “Stephen Colbert” (soft T), then I would argue you are beyond dense and completely oblivious to the genius of the persona Colbert (hard T) took on. The entire persona was designed around being a blind fanboy to an ‘industry’ (or political party in his case, which is basically an industry) in a manner that highlights how absurd the industry is in the first place. That is exactly the kind of persona that would help our industry realize how perverse it is, and show us through delicious irony how absurd and blind we are to our own problems. More importantly, Colbert did not claim any relevance to, or portray anyone in our industry in any way.

If your argument for comparison is Alec Baldwin? That is a valid argument I think! If the industry didn’t speak out against Baldwin in this context, while speaking out against CSI: Cyber actors, that seems hypocritical. I don’t recall Baldwin doing a RSAC keynote in the past, but it isn’t something I would have noticed unless there was an eruption of drama. Stick with this example for arguments against the CSI: Cyber cast.

rsac-fiasco-adam_savage

Really? This has to be the worst comparison possible. Adam Savage has made his career around breaking and building things, a cornerstone of the hacker ethos and mentality. Not only does he build and break things, he does it in the pursuit of truth and shares it with anyone willing to watch MythBusters. That embodies the hacker spirit in the minds of a significant portion of our industry. The cross-over from our largely digital world, to his largely analog world, makes complete sense. He is a rare case where the ‘reality’ in ‘Reality TV’ is actually true.

To come full circle, people still argue that RSAC has value because that is where the “trends” are announced. The problem is, RSA ‘trends’ are mostly buzzword rebrands of old technology, with a few ‘bleeding-edge’ adjectives thrown in to make them sound more sexy. I’ll leave this great Tweet as a tongue-in-cheek, but accurate, reminder of how a significant portion of our industry views the conference, regardless of keynote choices.

rsac-tic

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