RSA 2016

10 momentous moments from 25 years of RSA

The NSA, Clipper Chips, Apple v. FBI, booth-babe ban – the RSA Conference has seen it all

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RSA wants you

As much as it stands for a cryptosystem and a security vendor, RSA is synonymous for the world’s largest digital security conference, which is being held for the 25th year this week in San Francisco. Born in 2001 to battle government involvement on a public authentication standard, over the years it has been the forum where major security and privacy issues - and some lesser - ones have been aired. Here’s a look at 10 of these moments.

2016: Apple v. the FBI
2016: Apple v. the FBI

It’s bound to be the hot topic at this week’s conference. Apple has refused to comply with a court order to make its iPhone hackable so the FBI can find out what information of value the San Bernardino shooters might have left on it. Apple says doing so would set a precedent that threatens public safety. The FBI says it’s needed to fight terrorism.

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2015: Booth-babe ban

In an attempt to make the show floor less sexist and more professional, organizers set a rules of attire that prohibited display of excessive cleavage; tank, halter, camisole and tube tops; miniskirts; second-skin bodysuit and shorts. They applied to all booth staff regardless of gender.

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2014: Walkout

A dozen or so speakers at the conference backed out in protest of news that it accepted $10 million in NSA money to use a backdoored random-bit generator in its security gear. RSA’s Art Coviello said the NSA had abused its position of trust and that the company didn’t know about the backdoor.

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2011: Intimidated

HB Gary Federal had been hacked a few months earlier by the group Anonymous, which posted embarrassing emails on the Internet. That incident and threats to its employees prompted the company to pull out of the conference in the interest of safety.

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2010: Stronger cooperation

White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt uses his RSA keynote to launch the updated Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative that calls for cooperation between public and private security professionals to work in the national interest.

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Credit: Stephen Sauer
2008: Call for help

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tells the conference that the government needs security researchers from private industry to serve his agency because it can’t effectively combat cyber threats without them.

2002: Remember 9/11
Credit: Wikimedia
2002: Remember 9/11

U.S. cyber security czar Richard Clarke calls on private industry to beef up its security because terrorist hacking attacks are inevitable following the physical terrorist attacks just a few months before. He chided them for using just a quarter of one percent of their revenues for cyber protection. "If you spend more money on coffee than IT security, you will be hacked. And moreover, you deserve to be hacked," he said.

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1998: Rap

Then-RSA CEO Jim Bidzos rapped along with the Sugar Hill Gang in a rewritten version of the group’s “Rapper’s Deilght” that included the lyric, "They once proposed a thing called Clipper/ Now there's something new that ain't much hipper/ Key recovery won't work, so the experts say/ But the government wants to push it on us anyway.” The Clipper Chip was a proposed encryption chip with a backdoor to be placed in phones. (See next slide.)

25 years of rsa 10
Credit: Wikimedia
1995: Clipper Chip

RSA led a spirited discussion about the proposed Clipper Chip that the U.S. government wanted to place in encrypted phones. They had an encryption key escrow mechanism that would let the government decrypt private messages. RSA printed up posters protesting the proposal.

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1991: the launch

Bidzos launches RSA to provide an educational forum to help point out NSA’s involvement in developing a possibly weak algorithm incorporated in the Digital Signature Standard. “So that’s when I came up with this idea to have this conference. So I got [cryptographers Ronald] Rivest and a few other people, I think Marty Hellman was there, Taher El Gamal and some other people to say this is a bad idea and here’s why. And so we let people come for free. I think we got 60 people.”