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February 22-28, 2006

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

The End of Passwords: Convention delegates jammed the floor while Secret Service chaps with spiral phone cords in their ears oversaw the action from the balcony level

By Gary Singh

THE PAST, present and future of information security descended upon San Jose last week via the RSA Conference at the McEnery Convention Center. If you're even remotely interested in cybercrime or the future of crime in general, this was the place to be, as the annual gathering is possibly the hugest get-together for industry professionals who deal with cryptography, network protection, crime-over-IP and more.

One of the initial highlights was Bill Gates calling for the end of passwords. The gist of his speech was that the future of the Internet will see it functioning as a "trust ecosystem" and, by then, "multifactor authentication" will have replaced passwords, making everything more secure somehow.

But Gates was not the most powerful man present. FBI director Robert Mueller spoke at a town hall meeting titled "Top Cops Versus Cyber Criminals," which took place in the Civic Auditorium. That Mueller himself actually showed up to this event is curious enough. At the talk, convention delegates jammed the floor while Secret Service chaps with spiral phone cords in their ears oversaw the action from the balcony level. Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance, introduced Mueller and said that that cybercrime is the FBI's No. 3 priority after terrorism and counterintelligence. Mueller then took the stage and said that the FBI's work has changed dramatically with the rise of cybercrime. "Information technology has become a force-multiplier for criminals," he declared, "from online fraud to exploitation to identity theft. And with the advent of the information age, our world has become smaller, our world has become smarter, but the threats we face have become equally more diverse, equally more dangerous. Cyberspace has been likened by some to the Wild West—an open and largely unprotected frontier with seemingly limitless opportunities. Like any new frontier, there will be those who seek to stake their claims, whether by legal means or by illegal means. Like the outlaws of the Wild West, the outlaws of this new world operate without boundaries and without barriers. And they are moving as fast and as far as the technology will take them."

To "show how far we've come," Mueller then recalled one specific case from when he was working as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco. A hacker had broken into the network of a high-tech company and had unleashed a "zombie" attack—using that network to target other computers. Mueller then wanted the FBI to monitor the company's system—with their permission—in case the intruder showed up again. But, at that time, according to Department of Justice policy, the FBI was not allowed to do that. Since the situation required them to move immediately without delay, Mueller became frustrated with the DOJ bureaucracy. He said that, now, thanks to the Patriot Act, the FBI can now go ahead and do this without the court order—as long as the company grants them permission. It just makes you wonder ...

After concluding his speech, Mueller exited the stage and didn't stay around to take any questions. The town hall panel session followed and featured three guests who did take questions, including Arif Alikhan, senior counsel to the deputy attorney general at the DOJ, where he oversees the Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property Program. He explained that cybercrime is getting much more organized. Now that we're in an Internet marketplace, cybercrime is a much more lucrative business.

Back at the conference, at one booth on the exhibition floor, one got a chance to see the past of code-breaking and cryptography. Jennifer Wilcox, assistant curator of the National Cryptologic Museum, showed off an original Enigma encryption machine—the one used by the Germans in World War II. The all-seeing emblem of the National Security Agency adorned the barrier behind her. Since I myself have never been secure, I eventually left the convention floor. But it was a damn good show, and one with a hell of a lot of security.

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