RSA boycott splits security industry on tactic's effectiveness

The handful of security experts boycotting the upcoming RSA Conference have split the industry between those who believe the protest is justified and others who see it as a knee-jerk reaction to reports of RSA collaboration with the U.S. National Security Agency.

[Blog: OWASP terminates marketing agreement with RSA Conference, board member cancels class out of protest]

As of Thursday, a total of eight speakers and panel participants and one training instructor cancelled appearances at the high-profile annual security event that runs Feb. 24-28 in San Francisco.

In addition, the board of the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) voted Thursday to terminate a co-marketing agreement the group had with the conference. OWASP is a nonprofit group dedicated to improving software security.

The boycott stems from a Reuters report last month that the NSA paid EMC-owned RSA $10 million to use the spy agency's algorithm in one of its products for encrypting digital content. The technology essentially gave the NSA a way to decrypt data.

RSA denied the report, but its statement failed to convince many people in the security industry, who found it too vague.

With 400 speakers scheduled for the conference, which drew 24,000 attendees last year, the boycott is not expected to have much of an impact. Event organizers say those who cancel will be replaced. Nevertheless, the protest has sparked lively debate.

"The allegations that in 2004 they took $10 million to weaken their product are very serious," Matthew Green, assistant research professor for computer science at Johns Hopkins University, said. "I think that people have a lot of questions that could be resolved if RSA issued a more thorough denial, or conducted an investigation into the allegations.

"Since RSA isn't doing that, people are expressing their dissatisfaction in the best way they know how to."

To Paul Rosenzweig, former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, that expression is misplaced.

"I am proudly planning to attend and speak at RSA," he said. "Nothing is gained boycotting those with whom you disagree."

[Security industry tainted in latest RSA revelations]

Jim Harper, director of Information Policy Studies at The Cato Institute, is more sympathetic, saying he's "sitting on the fence" in deciding whether he will participate in the event.

"The RSA brand is badly tainted, and if the allegations are true, Id like to see the community agree to shutter the conference for good," Harper said. "On the other hand, I dont want to inconvenience the organizers of my panel, and there is always value in discussing the issues."

Murray Jennex, a professor in information system security at San Diego State University, believed the protesters were making a "flash statement" that gets attention, but removes them from discussing what's likely to be a top topic among conference attendees.

"As it was said in the 60s, if you aren't part of the solution you are part of the problem," he said. "Those pulling their talks are ultimately part of the problem, because they are effectively removing their voice and platform from the discussion on the solution."

Staying in the conversation is riskier because people who are anti-RSA now could later find themselves agreeing with what was done, which could upset customers, followers or readers, Jennex said.

"Favor the brave who keep themselves relevant and part of the debate," he said.

Critics claim the NSA is violating the privacy rights of Americans through its massive surveillance of Internet activity and telecommunications. Revelations of alleged NSA abuse stem from documents made available last year to select media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

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