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MWC 2016: Cisco CEO on the Economy & Encryption

Dan Jones
2/23/2016

BARCELONA -- Mobile World Congress 2016 -- Cisco's new CEO thinks that technology spending -- at least on certain projects -- is not as subject to the unpredictable economic conditions as it was a decade ago.

The networking vendor's annual media round-table here at Mobile World Congress gives Cisco execs a chance to take on weighty topics in the technology and socio-economic sphere. It was no exception this time, as CEO Chuck Robbins touched on the possibility of an economic downturn and the challenge of balancing citizen and government rights in the debate over when national security trumps the right to privacy.

"There is more uncertainty than there was three or four months ago," Robbins said, when asked whether market volatility could put a crimp in spending on tech. Today, however, is different from ten years ago, when technology spending was regarded by corporate customers as a "necessary evil."

"Today, technology has to be at the heart of their strategy," he said. That is true at least for crucial projects, so while a switch refresh might wait a couple months, a network security upgrade wouldn't.

Now that Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Cisco are partners, planning to sell into the enterprise, Robbins was unsurprisingly grilled several times about Apple's battle with the FBI, which wants the company to help it break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, to access the data held therein. Apple has so far refused to do that. (See Apple & Cisco Plot an Enterprise Fast Lane.)

The Cisco CEO tried to walk a nuanced line on the issue. "There is no easy answer... I believe that encryption is incredibly important," he told the assorted reporters. "I do not believe that we should put backdoors into our products... that weaken the products," Robbins said.

He suggested that citizens have a right to "transparency" as regards security options but that "there really needs to be a balance" between citizens' rights and expectations and national security. Robbins didn't directly say it, but he appeared to favor a less absolutist approach than Apple boss Tim Cook.

He also didn't exactly say how such a balance could be achieved, other than stressing "transparency." Robbins did suggest, however, that the pendulum tends to swing between the need for perceived security and perceived privacy, depending whether a country is on a war footing or in a prolonged peaceful period.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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kq4ym
kq4ym
2/26/2016 | 10:06:31 AM
Re: Wonder if tort laws may change company opinions...
And it does seem true that the "pendulum tends to swing between the need for perceived security and perceived privacy, depending whether a country is on a war footing or in a prolonged peaceful period." And maybe also depending on what hardware/software industry lobbyists have money to spend for influence to legislators as well.
gconnery
gconnery
2/24/2016 | 5:00:38 PM
Re: Wonder if tort laws may change company opinions...
Well there have been a couple of honest to goodness examples recently, so lets see how those go.  Juniper shipped its NetScreen appliances for years with a backdoor they apparently inserted at the request of the NSA.  It was used by the NSA/GCHQ to break into that SIM vendor a while back.  Somebody, presumably chinese sponsored hackers, changed the code so that they could use the backdoor instead of the NSA.  That shipped for a few years.  Then recently they noticed the change or the NSA alerted them and they put the original code back.  Yes the backdoor is still there.  Now that it is widely know I assuming other actors, at the very least state actors, will use this backdoor to break into company networks. 

So... has Juniper's sales been harmed by these revelations?  Are people adding language to their contracts requiring Juniper et al to promise there are no backdoors?  Have there been or will there be any lawsuits against Juniper for this breach of customer security/promises/expectations?  Lets see...
ethertype
ethertype
2/23/2016 | 6:49:15 PM
Re: Wonder if tort laws may change company opinions...
Point taken.  Never assume that common sense will influence a jury damage award.
flake
flake
2/23/2016 | 6:44:25 PM
Re: Wonder if tort laws may change company opinions...
I would agree.  However, I didn't think a company could get sued for coffee served too hot.
ethertype
ethertype
2/23/2016 | 6:34:47 PM
Re: Wonder if tort laws may change company opinions...
No chance, unless the companies are actively aiding terrorists.  They're far more likely to be held liable for damages arising from products they sell with known but concealed security vulnerabilities (including back doors). 
flake
flake
2/23/2016 | 2:31:00 PM
Wonder if tort laws may change company opinions...
It's probably only a matter of time before the relatives of terrorism victims will sue such companies claiming their refusal to cooperate prevented terrible acts from being stopped.  A few $50M+ lawsuits won by those in the court system might sway their opinions.
DanJones
DanJones
2/23/2016 | 12:53:44 PM
Re: False dichotomy
That's why he said backdoors into products create problems.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
2/23/2016 | 12:38:44 PM
Jurassic Park
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli
2/23/2016 | 12:20:33 PM
Re: False dichotomy
Indeed, Mitch.  The problems of information security and data privacy are perhaps more properly lumped under the heading of "data protection" for these and other reasons.
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli
2/23/2016 | 12:19:43 PM
Taking a stand
That's being put in a tough spot, arguably.  On the one hand, the CEO understand the problems of weakening encryption and the importance of protecting user data.  On the other hand, one could see how he wouldn't want to draw heightened regulatory scrutiny/wrath when his company is not the one on the spot right now.

I guess the only way to actually know where a tech CEO stands on the issue is to wait until his or her company comes under fire.  We know where Tim Cook stands, in any case.
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