Black Hat 2015 Analysis: The need for Global Thinking and Participation in the Security Community

This year’s Black Hat broke records yet again with the highest levels of attendance, including highest number of countries represented and, based on the size of the business hall, companies represented as well. While it featured some truly novel technical methods and the advanced security research for which it is so well known, this year’s conference even more than others reflected an institutionalization of the status quo within the security industry. Rather than reflecting the major paradigm shifts that are occurring in the security community, it seemed to perpetuate the insularity for which this community is often criticized.

In her Black Hat keynote speech, Jennifer Granick, lawyer and Director of Civil Liberties at Stanford University, noted that inclusion is at the heart of the hacker’s ethos and called for the security community to take the lead and push forth change within the broader tech sector. She explicitly encouraged the security community to refrain from being so insular, and to transform into a community that not only thinks globally but is also much more participatory in the policies and laws that directly affect them. While she focused on diversity and equality, there are several additional areas where the security community could greatly benefit from a more expansive mindset. Unfortunately, these strategic level discussions were largely absent from the majority of the Black Hat briefings that followed the keynote. The tactical, technical presentations understandably comprise the majority of the dialogue and garner the most attention.  However, given the growing size and expanding representation of disparate parts of the community, there was a noticeable absence of nuanced discussion about the state of the security community, including broader thinking about the three big strategic issues and trends that will define the community for the foreseeable future:

  • Where’s the threat? Despite a highly dynamic threat landscape, ranging from foreign governments to terrorist organizations to transnational criminal networks, discussion of these threat actors was embarrassingly absent from the panels this year. Although the security community is often criticized for over-hyping the threat, this was not the case at this year’s Black Hat. Even worse, the majority of discussions of the threat focused on the United States and Western European countries as the greatest security threats. Clearly, technology conferences must focus on the latest technological approaches and trends in the field. However, omitting the international actors and context in which these technologies exist perpetuates an inward-facing bias of the field that leads many to misunderstand the nature, capabilities and magnitude of the greatest threats to corporate and national security.
  • Toward détente? Last year’s Black Hat conference was still reeling from the Snowden revelations that shook the security community. A general feeling of distrust of the U.S. government was still apparent in numerous panels, heightening interest in privacy and circular discussions over surveillance. While sentiments of distrust still exist, this no longer appears to be the only perspective. In a few briefings, there was a surprising lack of the hostility toward the government that existed at similar panels a year ago. In fact, the very few panels that had government representation were not only well attended, but also contained civil discourse between the speakers and the audience. This does not mean that there were softball questions. On the contrary, there was blunt conversation about the "trust deficit" between the security community and the government. For instance, the biggest concern expressed regarding data sharing with the government (including the information sharing bill which Congress discussed last week, but is now delayed) was not about information sharing itself, but rather how the security community can trust that the government can protect the shared data in light of OPM and other high-profile breaches. This is a very valid concern and one that ignited a lot of bilateral dialogue. Organizations from the DHS to the Federal Trade Commission requested greater partnerships with the security community. While there are certainly enormous challenges ahead, it was refreshing to see not only signs of a potential thawing of relations between the government and the security community, but also hopefully some baby steps toward mutually beneficial collaboration.
  • Diversity. The general lack of diversity at the conference comes as no surprise given the well-publicized statistics of the demographics of the security community, as well as the#ilooklikeanengineer campaign that took off last week. However, diversity is not just about gender – it also pertains to diversity of perspectives, backgrounds and industries. Areas such as human factors, policy and data science seemed to be less represented than in previous years, conflicting with much of the rhetoric that permeated the business hall. In many of the talks that did cover these areas, there were both implicit and explicit requests for a more expansive partnership and role within the community.

Given the vast technological, geopolitical and demographic shifts underway, the security community must transform beyond the traditional mindset and truly begin to think beyond the insular perimeter. Returning to Granick’s key points, the security community can consciously provide leadership not only in shaping the political discourse that impacts the entire tech community, but also lead by example through promoting equality and thinking globally. The security community must play a participatory role in the larger strategic shifts that will continue to impact it instead of remaining an insularly focused island in the desert.