The vibe from the conference and exhibition floor at this year's event in Las Vegas left this first-time attendee in no doubt that BlackHat is well and truly growing up. The spirit of subversive hackery that filled BlackHat's attendee lists in the early days is certainly still there. But according to exhibitors and delegates alike there has been a clear shift in the attendee profile towards operational and commercial types charged with buying and implementing network security solutions for their businesses.
Not much of the conference or exhibition content was focused directly on the telecom sector that Heavy Reading serves. Key themes at BlackHat did nevertheless highlight some potentially key opportunities for communications service providers (CSPs) relating to security and data protection -- as well as some potential red flags.
One of the opportunities for CSPs was inadvertently highlighted in a day one keynote by Dan Kaminsky, one of the world's leading security researchers. Consistent with the pitching of the BlackHat community as a partner in a coalition of business, government and voluntary interests intent on protecting the Internet, Kaminsky lauded the work of America's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). He praised the organization for its substantial contribution to Internet security by collecting all of the vulnerabilities of C and Java into a single program via the Software Assurance Metrics and Tool Evaluation (SAMATE) project.
Kaminsky even called for a cybersecurity equivalent of the US National Institute of Health (NIH) to help lead and drive research into cybersecurity. No scourge of government, he. Until, that is, he turned to what he called the "terrifying" drift towards greater Internet regulation unleashed by the Snowden revelations.
He alluded to the drive in Europe and elsewhere to block, restrict or otherwise regulate access to the cloud services of America's world-leading web-scale Internet companies (WICs) such as Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Amazon Web Services Inc. . From a business and economic development perspective Kaminsky denounced these efforts as the computing equivalent of "stuffing dollar bills under the mattress."
Whatever the merits of that position, CSPs have been aggressively pursuing a more level regulatory playing field with the WICs for many years. So let's face it, any European CSP that doesn't see an opportunity to leverage its trusted, regulated, status to its advantage in this post-Snowden landscape is clearly missing a trick. That could take the form of Europe's CSPs attempting to compete with the WICs in cloud services, of course. Perhaps more likely it could take the form of greater collaboration between leaders among the two groups of companies.
Turning to red flags for the telecom sector, speed emerged as another key theme at BlackHat -- in the keynotes as well as on the exhibition floor. It's increasingly front and center in network security thinking that the more rapidly security policies or outcomes can be implemented or achieved, the smaller the window of opportunity for breaches to inflict extensive damage (or for them to occur in the first place).
As BlackHat Founder and Director Jeff Moss pointed out in his keynote, speed also matters in the commercial environment in the sense that measurements of speed are metrics that are concrete, persuasive and easily understandable to C-Level executives. As Moss put it, making consistent progress in reducing the time it takes to detect this, apply that, or patch the other maps well -- and looks good -- on any CEO’s dashboard.
Vendor marketing messages relating to speed were therefore very much in evidence everywhere at BlackHat. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) boasted of having reduced its mean time to detection from two days a year ago to 14 hours today, courtesy of its Advanced Malware Protection (AMP) product. Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: CHKP) said that its Sandblaster sandbox solution can create an instant copy of a suspect file in one second and deliver a verdict on whether it's safe or not within two minutes. SparkCognition Inc., a company that includes Verizon Ventures among its backers, pitched its SparkSecure security analytics application as performing "five times faster than traditional SIEMs."
Since there's no reason why a CSP can't benefit from the speed offered by these, as well as numerous other, security solutions how on earth can the theme of speed be interpreted as a red flag for CSPs coming out of BlackHat?
Quite simply because it's one thing to be able to spot a threat or vulnerability quickly, it's another thing altogether to be able to act on that and fix, remediate or mitigate the vulnerability quickly. And CSPs are a long way behind the WICs with respect to the software programmability -- hence the agility -- of their network infrastructure. They're a long way behind many enterprises too.
In that respect the legacy network architectures of the CSPs are a barrier to them not just being able to grow their networks at web scale but to be able to protect them at web speed. Considered from this perspective, a key take-away from BlackHat for CSPs is that the rigidities and long cycle times built into their operational model are emerging as a fundamental security vulnerability. Over time they risk becoming their single biggest vulnerability.
Some other reddish flags also emerged during BlackHat. Very recent sets of consumer survey data were released or cited during the event. Some data pointed to a rise in the number of American consumers having personal experience of suffering harmful cyber attacks. Other data pointed to some Americans becoming less willing than they once were to consume online applications due to cyber threats.
You might think that would go hand in hand with an uptick in the level of cyber hygiene practiced by Americans. The evidence presented by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) researcher Elie Bursztei, suggested otherwise. He recently performed the old trick of randomly scattering 297 USB drives around the campus of the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign.
How many of these USB drives do you suppose "called home" to the Google researchers having been picked up and inserted into a laptop by one of Illinois' brightest, tech-savviest, young adults? A couple of dozen, perhaps? Think again. No less than 135 -- fully 45% of them -- called home.
It would seem unlikely that continued growth in aggregate demand for Internet services is materially at risk from cyber threats. But, left unchecked, the negative trends cited in consumer experience outlooks and behaviors do suggest that the angle of elevation of growth in Internet traffic will under-achieve relative to its potential. And that's surely an outcome that CSPs and their vendors should be motivated to try and prevent.
In a similar vein, a number of vendor exhibitors sought to position security threats as the key barrier preventing the Internet of Things (IoT) from growing in line with the very high expectations driven by some high-tech industry leaders (including some in the telecom sector).
I don’t actually buy that, not so far as the telecom sector is concerned anyway. There's certainly something in it. But the fact that most CSPs, besides the biggest Tier 1 players, have only dipped their toe in the water of the IoT market up until now has more to do with broader business model and ROI issues. It's not as if you resolve the security concerns and that alone then triggers the IoT market to take off.
LogRythm ran an ad throughout the Las Vegas airport and Mandalay Bay Convention Center inviting BlackHat delegates to "Improve Your Chances" of avoiding a breach. CSPs, other service providers and enterprises have a great opportunity to do the same again with our own "Service Provider & Enterprise Security Strategies" event in New York on December 1. Who knows? In the spirit of a coalition of the willing, it might even be nice to see some hackers join us this time too.
— Patrick Donegan, Chief Analyst, Heavy Reading