Black Hat's Graduation
Is it just me or did the Black Hat conference feel more like the summer RSA Conference? That may not necessarily be a bad thing, depending on what Black Hat wants to be when it grows up
As I fly back home from the annual Black Hat conference in Vegas, I can reflect on a number of underlying themes at the show. Obviously, mobile was everywhere. You couldn't walk 10 feet without being bombarded with BYOD messaging. Malware was also a major focus area, with all sorts of companies talking either about detecting it, blocking it, or recovering from the inevitable infection. Thankfully, security marketers didn't seem to major in math, as mobile plus malware didn't equal "mobile malware." But I was also inebriated most of the week (like most of the attendees), so I could have missed it.
Consistent with the RSA Conference earlier this year, compliance-specific messaging was pretty muted -- which you'd kind of expect, especially at a show with a research heritage like Black Hat. But the pendulum swinging back toward security (after years in the compliance darkness) was a welcome change, at least for me.
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Truth be told, none of these topics truly resonated with me. It was a lot of ho-hum. What did interest me, however, were the numerous conversations with folks in all areas of the industry (users, vendors, other analysts, consultants, students, etc.) about how much this year's Black Hat seemed like the RSA Conference. You know, the show floor was huge, complete with tons of booth babes. The parties were off the hook, with some of the companies bringing in world-renowned DJs to spin tunes and blast out our eardrums. The business development folks looking to set up technology, distribution, and strategic alliances were out in force, humping each others' legs like dogs in heat.
There were CEOs there. There were marketing folks there. And there seemed to be fewer folks doing interesting research. The sessions -- with some exceptions -- were underwhelming. The keynotes were uninformative. Like RSA, it seemed as if much of what Black Hat was telling us was stuff we already knew.
So is the security industry just tired and lacking innovation? Does this relate to short-sighted companies continuing to pursue legal remedies to stifle security research, as opposed to actually fixing the problems? Are researchers deciding to sell their best work privately, as opposed to giving it away for free at a conference? Is this an industry issue or a Black Hat-specific issue?
Actually, issue isn't the right way to phrase it because this may not be a problem at all. This may be a logical evolution of what Black Hat becomes when it grows up. It's kind of like graduating from college and entering the real world. In college it was about the purity of learning and breaking things while having a great time and drinking beer with your buddies. During the college years, you met lots of great folks, learned how to get things done, and prepared for the inevitable transition to responsibility, adulthood, and better hygiene.
When you graduated, things changed. You made some money and bought better beer. You hung out with a different crowd. Your actions were no longer based on intellectual pursuit -- rather, balancing that with the need to pay the bills. It strikes me that Black Hat is doing the same. The conference was acquired by a big media company (which also owns Dark Reading), and obviously these folks are about growing revenue.
Black Hat is standing on a slippery slope. The vendors show up en masse because the folks that influence their deals show up at Black Hat. Not the CISOs (yet), maybe not even directors. Clearly it's still the folks in the trenches, who probably can't approve a big purchase, but they certainly can make it a lot harder to get a deal done if they don't like a vendor or technology. Black Hat cannot alienate those folks, or it truly will become the RSA Conference.
Like all graduates, Black Hat has to figure out what it wants to do when it grows up. Who is the main audience it wants to cater to? Answer that question and everything falls into place. Again, it doesn't matter whether Black Hat decides to climb the ladder and try to appeal more specifically to directors and up, or if it decides to get back to its roots and only highlight cool research.
But what it can't be is both; we all remember how well acting like a kid, but having real responsibilities worked out. Let's just say that path usually ends with high-priced lawyers involved.
Mike Rothman is President of Securosis and author of the Pragmatic CSO.