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From cloud and mobile security to encryption, security concerns abound as RSA turns 20

RSA has seen everyone from Bill Gates to Janet Napolitano and Pat Benatar weigh in on tough security issues of the day

By , Network World
February 03, 2011 06:02 AM ET

Network World - This marks the 20th year since the first RSA Conference, an annual meeting that has witnessed major technology shifts, aired significant controversies and undergone a name change on its way to becoming the largest security conference in the world.

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It's even being challenged by a shadow conference - Securtiy B-Sides - that runs during the same timeframe in the same city and can fill a program with overflow presentations that don't make the RSA cut.

As preparations for this year's meeting (Feb. 14-18 in San Francisco) continue, here's a look back at some of the highlights over the years.

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The first conference was called "Cryptography, Standards & Public Policy: the Fall '91 Crypto Technology Update" - not RSA - and met in the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City, Calif., Nov. 4, 1991, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fewer than 50 signed in. The event was called to address a specific issue - the Digital Signature Standard that was about to be issued by the National Institute of Technology and Standards and which would undermine RSA as the de facto standard widely used commercially.

The conference was prompted by a call from Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who was concerned about mandating the standard for business, according to RSA's then-CEO Jim Bidzos. "It sounds to me like the best thing we can do is educate people," Bidzos replied, he says in an oral-history interview, "so maybe what we ought to do is host a conference and educate people about this. I've got access to a lot of people who can talk about it."

He rounded up a group of people to say why DSS was a bad idea, and the afternoon agenda for the first conference wound up being just one panel: "DES and DSS: Standards of Choice?"

The panel was a who's who of cryptographers: Whitfield Diffe and Martin Hellman (Diffie-Hellman key exchange); Ronald Rivest (the R in the RSA public key algorithm); Jim Omura (of the Massey-Omura cryptosystem); Taher Elgamal (the father of SSL encryption); and Burt Kaliski, who drove the standardization of public key encryption.

The bottom line for DSS was that it was adopted, but the discussion proved the need for a forum for discussing such topics.

Since then the conference has taken on important security issues, such as the battle against the Clipper Chip that would have give the U.S. government encryption keys to decrypt communications secured by the chips. Its prominence prompted the Cloud Security Alliance to launch at the conference in 2009.

As the conference grew, so did its scope, says Sandra LaPedis, general manager of the conference, with the 2005 keynote by Microsoft's Bill Gates being a turning point at which RSA became an all-encompassing security forum. "It was a big acknowledgment for Microsoft to send its top executive here," she says. The conference has drawn Cisco's CEO John Chambers, U.S. department of Homeland Security secretaries Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano and this year features former President Bill Clinton.

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