Elizabethan Era -- complete with costumed minstrels and acrobats wandering
the San Jose, Calf. convention center. Unofficially, the security event
opened Tuesday with a more serious theme, with U.S. cyber security czar
Richard Clarke warning about the potential for terrorist hack attacks, and a
panel of noted cryptographers fretting over lost liberties in the wake of
the real terrorist attacks of September 11.
In a keynote address kicking off the conference, Clarke repeated the
message that he's delivered around the country since his appointment as the
White House's Special Advisor for Cyber Security last fall, evoking
patriotic duty and September 11 to urge companies to make computer security
a top priority, and arguing that future terrorists may exploit glaring
weaknesses in U.S. computer systems.
"This industry runs the same risk that the aviation industry ran," Clarke
said. "For years, people in the aviation industry knew that there were
security vulnerabilities. They convinced each other and convinced themselves
that these vulnerabilities would never be used."
Citing a Forrester Research report that found companies spend on average
.0025 percent of their revenue on information security, Clarke chided, "If
you spend more money on coffee than IT security, you will be hacked. And
moreover, you deserve to be hacked."
In contrast, Clarke said, the Bush administration has proposed increasing
federal cyber security funding by sixty-four percent to $4 billion -- eight
percent of the government's $50 billion IT budget.
Clark also defended his proposal for the creation of a private network
exclusively for sensitive government computers. The administration received
167 comments on the proposal to create a "Govnet" that would be isolated
from the public Internet, Clarke said. Those proposals are being reviewed by
sixteen federal agencies.
The cyber security czar professed surprise at learning from the comments
that other segregated wide area networks already exist, within federal
agencies and private companies. "What we discovered is that the idea of
having a separate air-gapped network... is in fact an old idea," said
Clarke. "There are already such networks out there."
Some security experts had criticized the Govnet proposal, arguing that such
a network would itself be vulnerable to attack, and would represent a
government abandonment of the Internet. Clarke countered Tuesday that he
didn't expect Govnet to provide perfect security, but that it makes sense to
remove critical government functions from the public network. "I don't know
where it was ever written that everything has to be connected to everything
else," said Clarke.
Clarke's talk -- a mix of fiery rhetoric and pragmatic analysis -- was
generally well received, though observers disagreed with Clarke on some key
"He seems to say that out of the goodness of our hearts we should spend more
and more and do the right thing, and I don't think that's going to happen,"
said Bruce Schneier, CTO of Counterpane Internet Security. "If you want to
make them do the right thing, make it illegal to do the wrong thing."
"I really believe terrorists are more interested in physical mayhem," said
former hacker Kevin Mitnick, also attending the conference. "A lot of people
don't take notice if the phone system goes down in Miami."
The terrorism theme carried over into the Cryptographer's Panel -- an annual
tradition at the conference that brings together the world's most well known
cryptography experts. But the panel was less concerned with the purported
threat of cyber terrorism, than with the corporate and governmental
responses to physical attacks.
Adi Shamir, professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, criticized the
hodgepodge of security measures that went into effect following September
11, including airport screeners that sometimes prohibited innocuous items
like fingernail clippers, while allowing materials that could be converted
into weapons. "I think that in computer security we know the importance of
multiple lines of defense," said Shamir. "They should use ethical computer
hackers in order to think of ways that airline security could be breached."
Privacy was an issue for MIT professor Ronald Rivest, who was particularly
concerned about plans to make widespread use of small, inexpensive
radio-frequency tags as security tools. "Everything you own might have one
of these tags on them," said Rivest. "I might be able to tell how much money
you're carrying just by putting out a radio probe."
The technology could backfire, said Rivest, with terrorists using the tags
as a proximity fuse for an explosive, so that a bomb would go off when a
particular person came within range. The cryptographer suggested that laws
may be needed to prevent companies or the government from tying such tags to
personally identifiable information.
Whitfield Diffie, another cryptography legend, worried about growing
restrictions on the free flow of information. "The more we impose controls
on ourselves, the more they can be taken over to support some else's
information control policies," said Diffie.
The cryptographer drew applause for condemning intrusive new surveillance
practices. "This kind of very un-American watching of people is something we
should watch very carefully."
The RSA Conference continues through Friday. By Kevin Poulsen