Vegas Hacker Summer Camp 2016: Mind the Gap

"But the real magic comes when you take the expertise that you've got in security and you translate it and you rebuild it and you reform it. Don't be afraid to take the knowledge you have and make it accessible to vastly more people."  Dan Kaminsky during the Black Hat 2016 keynote address.


Information sharing – snuck semi-discreetly into last year’s omnibus bill – is often portrayed as the policy community’s silver bullet for increased security. The policy community does not maintain a monopoly on silver bullets, as many buzz words and hype made the rounds during last week’s major infosec conferences – BSidesLV, Black Hat, and Defcon. Both communities’ propensity for bumper sticker solutions to extremely complex issues aside, there is something to be said for greater information sharing, not just of data as it is currently conceived, but more so of information sharing across communities. The combination of last week’s conferences, with President Obama’s recent directives and Cybersecurity National Action Plan (CNAP) priorities, all point back to the need for greater information sharing. However, we need to reframe the notion of information sharing such that the emphasis becomes one of laying the foundation for greater accessibility of inbound and outbound knowledge. That is, the industry requires a greater diversity of perspectives to compliment the current phenomenal domain expertise, and help overcome some of today’s greatest challenges in security.


Greater Integration of Strategic, Business, and Technical Thinkers

It’s a useful heuristic to gauge this notion of knowledge accessibility by looking at the Vegas conferences through the lens of two of CNAP’s major objectives. First, CNAP called for the creation of a Commission on enhancing cyber security that would represent a public/private partnership. At its core, the goal is to combine the top “strategic, business, and technical thinkers” to dramatically innovate the policy realm, very similar to the government’s outreach to the larger tech community, as epitomized by organizations like DIUx and collaborative projects such as Hack the Pentagon. However, last week there was a noticeably smaller number of policy panels. In fact, using the Black Hat categorization filter, there were only seven policy talks, the majority of which likely wouldn’t be considered policy topics by their authors or by policy wonks. Previous years had much greater engagement by the government or those in the policy community, as well as more direct content straight from the policy community. Each year, these talks tend to be very well attended, and this year was no exception. Jason Healey’s talk on technologies and policies for a defensible cyberspace was standing room only, AND people stuck around to ask questions instead of bolting as so often happens.

Why does this matter? Well, let’s look at one of the few policy-relevant talks last week, where two Congressmen told the Defcon attendees that it will likely take years for the government to begin to reach some initial resolutions on encryption. There is no guarantee that, even after that prolonged time, the solution will be something both technically and politically viable. The latest round of Wassenaar Arrangement discussions validates this, with many security experts finding it not only off the mark, but overall detrimental to international cybersecurity.  While the security industry certainly can’t speed up the legislative process, it can participate more to ensure that those proposals that do emerge are technically sound and viable. This requires greater interaction between the communities, including at these extremely technical conferences. Clearly, the technical aspect should continue to dominate, but there needs to be more than a few loosely categorized panels to truly stimulate the policy innovation so desperately needed.


Boost Cyber Workforce

Another objective of the CNAP is to boost the cyber workforce. Identified as the most critical skills gap, most solutions point to greater training and education as the key solution. As many acknowledge, this may be useful in the future, but does nothing for the current dearth of talented applicants. In contrast, many of the skills required actually can be acquired from other disciplines, for whom security does not seem like a natural career path. Look at data science, for example, where disciplines from electrical engineering to physics to materials science can provide the modeling and coding skills essential for today’s security data environment. To illustrate this point, Endgame was fortunate enough to have speakers at all three main conferences, covering a range of topics including machine learning, blockchain, control-flow integrity, and steganography. The speakers’ backgrounds, in turn, vary significantly and demonstrate the importance of the cross-pollination of ideas across disciplines, and the value of cross-functional teams. Unfortunately, looking at most security job reqs today, they remain so focused on specific security skills or languages that they omit the most important aspects of the security workforce – the ability to adapt, innovate, collaborate, and maintain strong technical acumen.

Not only can disciplinary diversity help augment the current workforce, but it requires a diversity of perspectives of all kinds, including various educational backgrounds, disciplines, and race.  This clearly also includes the overwhelming gender gap in the industry that seems to only be getting worse. Defcon created the most buzz in this area on social media in response to a hacker jeopardy category.  In contrast, there is some good news to report – BSidesLV had roughly 22% female speakers, and two of three keynotes were women. For any other industry, 22% would be nothing to cheer about, but given the declining current rate of roughly 8-11% women in the industry, 22% looks pretty good! Conference culture can go a long, long way toward helping impact this gender gap. From reducing the number of manels to increasing the number of female speakers to creating a conference culture that penalizes blatant harassment, the conferences are a key gauge of the state of the industry. Unfortunately, it appears to remain stagnant at best, or possibly trending in the wrong direction.


Biggest Bang for the Buck

In the keynote address at BlackHat, Dan Kaminsky stressed the need to make the knowledge of the industry more accessible, to translate it, and reform it. This is exactly what the industry needs to help tackle what is truly one of the most complex and dynamic geopolitical environments, which happens to coincide with one of the most impactful technological revolutions. Last week at BSidesLV, Black Hat, and Defcon, we witnessed some truly phenomenal technical breakthroughs. Unfortunately, they alone are not enough. The gap between policy and security, and the workforce gap also will continue to impact private and public security for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, there are simple and impactful solutions that exist to these two major gaps impacting the industry. My vote for this year’s biggest bang for the buck toward addressing one of these gaps is TiaraCon, a movement that caught on quickly and garnered funding to provide a safe and supportive hacking environment for all genders. Let’s hope other social movements similarly gain momentum, because the status quo will not be sustainable against today’s threat landscape.