At least eight security experts boycott prominent security conference over NSA ties


The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md., in June 2013. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

At least six eight computer security researchers have withdrawn from a major security conference in a protest against the conference's sponsor, computer security firm RSA. That company has been accused of taking money from the National Security Agency to incorporate a flawed encryption algorithm into one of its security products.

Reuters reported last month on a secret $10 million contract between RSA and the NSA. Allegedly, RSA, an encryption pioneer that is now a division of EMC, took a $10 million payment for making a specific NSA-developed algorithm the default method for generating random numbers in one of their security products.

Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggest that the NSA included a flaw in the formula that effectively gave the NSA a "backdoor" for content encrypted using the algorithm, known as Dual Elliptic Curve. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) later approved the standard, but RSA started using it even before NIST's blessing. But researchers had long speculated about the security of the protocol. After the Snowden revelation, RSA warned customers to stop using it.

In a statement posted days after the Reuters report about the NSA contract, RSA stated that it had never hidden the fact that it had a relationship with the NSA. The company also asserted that it had not intended to weaken the cryptographic capabilities of its software products. But it didn't directly deny Reuters's central charge: that it had accepted $10 million to use the NSA's algorithm.

The revelations, and the evasive response from RSA, triggered outrage among some security professionals. Within days of the story, the first rumblings of a boycott of the RSA Conference scheduled for February started to appear. The RSA Conference is a major cybersecurity industry event that attracted over 24,000 attendees in 2013. Hugh Thompson, the program committee chairman, calls speaking slots at the conference "highly competitive," with more than 2,000 submissions battling for  300 to 400 sessions.

Yet, Josh Thomas of Atredis Partners announced Dec. 22 that he was pulling his talk due to a "moral imperative." Then Mikko Hypponen, chief  research officer at Finnish cybersecurity company F-Secure, announced that he would be cancelling his talk (appropriately titled "Governments as Malware Authors") via an open letter Dec. 23.

Chris Palmer, a software security engineer at Google, also joined in the chorus of cancelled talks in December, according to a tweet from his personal account. In the New Year, the boycott continued to pick up recruits, including Jeffrey Carr, founder and CEO of cyberesecurity company Taia Global, who announced that he would cancel his talk at the conference.

On Tuesday, Christopher Soghoian,  principal technologist with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, tweeted that he had withdrawn from his panel. So, too, did another Googler, Adam Langley.

Thompson said he was "disappointed" by their cancellations, but argued that their ire was misplaced because the conference has "long been a neutral event." However, he did concede that "RSA, the company, owns RSA Conference." Thompson expects to fill the now-vacant slots with alternate speakers from the selection process and believes that the conference is all the more important because of the NSA revelations of the previous year.

"Security has risen in the agenda of almost every company and every government in a way that we've never seen before," he said."I think that the security dialogue is more intense than it has ever been."

Update: The original version of this story reported that six experts were boycotting, but during the writing and editing process two further experts announced they had withdrawn from the conference -- Marcia Hofmann and Alex Fowler.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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