In a closing keynote address at the 2014 RSA Conference, acclaimed comedian, actor and political satirist Stephen Colbert was able to simultaneously entertain and challenge a room filled with security experts from across the world. But it was all laughs. There were moments when the crowd squirmed in their seats.
“Let me begin by saying, 0110100001101001. And I mean that,” opened Colbert – an easy gag for the start of a technology conference speech but one that seemed to be softening up the crowd for some tough questions later.
His biggest opening laugh came when he said "RSA developed this conference in 1991 as a forum for cryptographers to gather and talk shop, and I assume breed with one another. Of course officially that's called exchanging private keys".
Early in his speech, Colbert acknowledged that there had been a petition circulated imploring him to boycott the event, as did several speakers, in response to revelations last year that RSA had received significant sums of money from the NSA and an alleged link between those fiunds and the NSA's access to data that customers believed was secured using RSA's equipment.
"First, as a freedom lover I don’t engage in boycotts; I eat Iranian apricots, smoke Cuban cigars, and snort North Korean meth. Two, I looked at the signatures on the petition and then looked at my signature on the contract for my appearance here so my conscience is clear, as long as the check clears. Although they didn't give me a check but a stash of Bitcoins from Mt Gox."
When it came to Bitcoin, Colbert noted that if there was an apocalypse, he would invest in "sheep, potable water and tradeable women". A cheap line but one that highlights the problems facing virtual currencies that do not have a physical element.
Colbert noted some of the other speakers at the event and had the audience laughing with quips such inviting Scott Charney from Microsoft to speak was like inviting someone from an Orwellian dystopia.
He reserved special "praise" for FBI director James Comey, who argued that security and, by extension, surveillance were necessary for privacy.
"Well said director. I'm sure that under enhanced liberty you can have all the privacy that you want, just like under enhanced interrogation you can breathe all the water you want."
At this point, Colbert started to heat up his satirical blowtorch, and addressed the Snowden revelations and actions of the NSA.
"He took top secret intelligence to China and then to Russia - was Mordor not accepting asylum requests? I see the Norwegians gave Snowden 30 Nobel Prize nominations. The guy's practically a war criminal. I don't understand how they could put him up for the same prize they once gave to Henry Kissinger."
Colbert asked for a show of hands to get a feel for how many people supported Snowden and his actions and how many didn’t. Although those who don’t support Snowden were more numerous, at least three-quarters of the audience did not vote one way or the other, indicating that the jury of public opinion, even among security experts, is still out.
"We can trust the NSA because without a doubt it is history's most powerful, pervasive, sophisticated surveillance agency ever to be totally pwned by a 29-year-old with a thumb drive," he said.
By the end of his speech, Colbert had managed to make the audience laugh but put a spotlight on some of the complex issues facing security and intelligence communities, and the general public. But rather than laying the blame on a specific agency he told the audience that it was everyone's fault.
“We all deserve credit for this new surveillance state that we live in because we the people voted for the PATRIOT Act. Democrats and Republicans alike,” he said near the end of his speech. “We voted for the people who voted for it, and then voted for the people who reauthorized it, then voted for the people who re-re-authorized it.”
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