Black Hat's Future Is The Past
Black Hat has changed a lot over the years. Now, more than ever, we need it to stick to its roots
I still remember the first time I attended Black Hat. It was back when I was still working for Gartner, and at the time was considered a "rogue" conference that bordered on the illegal due to its occasional inclusion of former convicted hackers on the speaking agenda. Good, clean, white-collar analysts from Gartner most definitely weren't supposed to mingle with the underground, even those of us with hacker roots.
It took all of a nanosecond at the event to realize how wrong those characterizations were, and since then, Black Hat has become such a fixture on my annual calendar that even eighth cousins, thrice removed, know better than to try and schedule anything that week. Black Hat has grown into one of the most significant events in security: one that plays a nearly unique role in our industry by bridging the gap between enterprise security professionals and the researcher/hacker community.
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But with this expansion comes the inevitable growing pains. After spending last week at Black Hat (and Def Con), I think the future of the conference will be a return to the core principles it was created for -- not, as my partner Mike Rothman suggests, a choice between focusing on the research or targeting CISOs. In my mind, it needs to do both.
(Mike and I may work together, but we don't censor at Securosis. We don't have any problem airing our dirty laundry in public and letting you decide who you agree with.)
Black Hat originally started as a way to bring the research of Def Con to enterprise and government IT security professionals. Not everyone can get approval to spend a weekend in Vegas at the world's biggest hacker conference, so founder Jeff Moss spun up a separate, related, event more-fitting a corporate and agency crowd. The core concept of Black Hat was to take the best of the research from the hacker community to the enterprise and government world. We have other enterprise security conferences, and other hacker cons, but Black Hat is one of the only to deliberately bridge these communities. (And yes, I know I'm being a bit idealistic here).
After spending last week at both events, it's clear a lot has changed. There's still some great research, but today's economics now drive some of the most important behind government, corporate, or criminal walls. More attendees are higher up on the corporate food chain, and the appeal isn't just to the front-line technical defenders. (We had 130 CISO in the Executive Briefing session I moderated the day before the main conference, with a substantial waiting list.) The vendor floor is an actual room, not a bunch of booths crammed into a crowded hallway. For the first time there was a defense track, which was often standing-room only, even in sessions where the technical content was weaker.
While Black Hat was originally established to bring offensive research to defenders, in many ways for much of its existence it was by researchers for researchers, with defenders as more of an afterthought there to pay the bills (at the Briefings at least, not the Trainings classes held beforehand). As the conference has grown, especially in the past few years, and garnered more corporate attention, the pressure is on to figure out exactly where it fits.
I agree with Mike that Black Hat sits at a crossroads. The audience is changing, the content is changing, and the world around it is changing. But while Mike (and he isn't alone) thinks the conference needs to focus more on researchers or directors and executives, I think the real opportunity is for Black Hat to return to its roots and serve first and foremost as a conduit to bring (mostly) hard-core offensive research to defensive security professionals and executives.
This is no easy task. The only way to pull it off is to continue to appeal to both those generating offensive research and the defenders. And to do so with intense technological depth that is also translated into terms mere humans can understand and use to make security decisions, without watering it down. To focus on the research first, not the "scene," but to do so in a way that is both respectful and appealing to the community that has sustained it for so long. Even to include vendors (on the show floor) but without having them fill their booths with marketeers instead of engineers.
Now, more than ever, we need a place where offensive and defensive researchers, corporate IT pros, government defenders, and CISOs can share the same halls and focus on the latest and best research, technology, and trends. That's why Black Hat first started, and I personally think that's where we need it to go.
Rich Mogull is is founder of Securosis LLC and a former security industry analyst for Gartner