RSA Conference 2017 Gets Political Amidst Election Hack Fallout

Donald Trump, US election

ANALYSIS: A look at the strong political focus of day one of RSA Conference 2017 in San Francisco

One of the overriding themes of yesterday’s keynote sessions at RSA Conference 2017 was the impact on cyber crime on politics, most notably the effect it had on September’s Presidential election.

As we now know, Republican Donald Trump claimed a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in a result that sent shock-waves through the technology sector, with the industry being particularly vocal in condemning Trump’s recent “un-American” immigrant travel ban.

But it isn’t the outcome of the election that has been debated in San Francisco this week. The focus has been firmly on the suspected cyber attack that is believed to have been carried out by Russian hackers to influence the result.

Election hack?

RSA CTO Zulfikar Ramzan was the first to get in on the act, questioning the role played by the cyber attacks and the possible long term effects.

“Consider the cyber attack on the Democratic national committee,” he said. “Did that attack change that course of the US Presidential election? Who knows. But it definitely changed the discourse that followed.

“The idea of foreign governments mounting cyber attacks to undermine a US election became mainstream front page news. That attack initiated a ripple that ultimately rocked the foundations of democracy. It demonstrates that our problem isn’t limited to the initial cyber attack we face. Our problem is the long tail of chaos it creates.”

RSA 2017

Ramzan was followed by Christopher Young, Senior vice president and general manager at Intel Security, who actually predicted that a hack on the US election would take place when he spoke on stage at RSA Conference 2016.

Young highlighted the potential impact of cyber attacks that are used to manipulate information, as big data continues to play an ever more prominent role in how businesses, governments and the general public make decisions: “No matter your politics, we all have to agree that the role of data security was on stark display like we’ve never seen before. And we’re reminded that data drives decisions and decisions write world history.

“In 2016 in our election, stolen and manipulated data was commissioned as propaganda to assassinate character and try to disrupt our democracy. That’s a real problem.

“The election made one thing clear for all of us. Data landmines properly placed can make it very difficult for any one of us to determine the difference between fact and fiction. And while I’m not questioning the outcome of the election, I am calling out that cyber attacks played a real role. It was data that was manipulated and intended to mislead our ability to make good decisions.”

Michael McCaul, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was equally as direct, saying: “There is no doubt in my mind that the Russian government tried to undermine and influence our elections.

“They broke into political institutions, invaded the privacy of private citizens, spread false propaganda. They created discord in the lead up to an historic vote. The crisis was the biggest wake up call yet that cyber intrusions have the potential to jeopardise the very fabric of our republic.”

He emphasised how winning the battle against these types of nation state attacks depends on being able to deliver forceful and appropriate consequences, or the issue will never go away: “We cannot allow anyone to use cyber intrusions to meddle into our domestic affairs and especially into our democratic process. This is a line we should not allow anyone to cross and our strategy should go beyond just returning fire. It should include the threat of sanctions and other real world penalties.

“Russia is a perfect example. We must continue to call out Moscow for election interference and if we don’t deliver meaningful consequences I am certain they will do it again. We’ve got to say enough is enough.”

Call to action

The final aspect of the conference’s political focus came from Microsoft President Brad Smith when he called on governments around the world to join forces in defending against cyber threats and nation state attacks.

“We need to recognise that the time has come for us to come together as an industry around the world to call on the world’s governments,” he said. “We need to call on the world’s governments to come together.

“We have seen cyber attacks move from enthusiasts to financial thieves to now governments around the world. Cyber space is the new battlefield. The world of potential war has migrated from land, to sea, to air and now cyber space.”

It was interesting to hear such a strong political message permeating through all of these keynotes. 2016 seems to have been a watershed year for cyber security and the rallying cries issued this week at RSA Conference 2017 could shape the sector for years to come.

Quiz: The world of cyber security in 2016