Now that Black Hat USA and DEF CON are over, it allows for some reflection on conferences and speaking engagements. I’ve been involved in the conference review and submission process for quite some time. In that time, there have been multiple instances where someone submits a good talk, it gets accepted, and their company makes them pull it. This situation is frustrating not only for the conference staff but also for the individual who submitted the talk in the first place.
On a less extreme side, I’ve seen many talks given by people who aren’t allowed to say where they work. They also had to take vacation time and pay their expenses. That’s pretty humiliating.
Why does this happen? The reason isn’t always apparent, but often it indicates an antiquated idea of the risk associated with presenting at a security conference. There may also be a healthy dose of not understanding the benefits mixed in as well.
With a few highlights, I hope to provide some benefits and dispel some myths. My aim is to give you some solid talking points for these conversations with your organization.
Benefits of Speaking
If you are a security leader who finds conferences valuable, then you already understand the value of presenting. Some companies, however, don’t see the benefits. But these most likely aren’t security companies. If you have any doubts, what if I told you that your people speaking at conferences gives you a leg up on your competition from both a perception as well as recruiting perspective?
Here are just a few of the benefits:
- Employee Retention / Morale / Quality of Life
Employees are more likely to stick around at companies that support them. Saying no to speaking engagements could mean you lose good people. Working on something more significant than your everyday job is fulfilling.
- Recruiting Tool / Differentiator
Future employees want to work with smart people and perform “cool” work. One of the best ways they can find out about that is through conference activities. We all know not everything we do is glamorous, but knowing there are interesting opportunities to engage and present research could be a good differentiator for future employees.
- Customer Confidence
Customers get an idea that you have experienced people and that you take security seriously. Even if the research points out something you weren’t doing so well in the past, it engenders confidence that you continue to be proactive and make improvements.
- Information Sharing / Greater Good / Community Support
You send a strong signal to the industry and peers that you’re willing to be a part of the community by sharing knowledge. This makes it much more likely that other organizations will share as well. Lead by example.
- Demonstration of Expertise
Speaking and sharing your experience at conferences can be incredibly rewarding. Not only is it a notch in the belt professionally, it just feels good to share with peers. Show the industry, peers, and customers that you are proactive.
Fear of the Unknown
Given the benefits, why do some companies not allow their people to speak? In my opinion, this comes down to fear. Let me break this up into 3 main areas.
- Unnecessary Attention
Throughout the years, unnecessary attention has been the excuse I’ve heard most often. Companies feel that if their people speak at conferences, it puts a target on them and invites attackers to try and show them up. I’ve got some news for you; your company is most likely already a target.
Vulnerabilities these days are worth money. So if an attacker is sitting on a 0day, they aren’t likely to burn it to make a point about you having someone speak at a conference.
If you are worried about elevating your position on an attacker’s radar because of public speaking, a lot of this comes down to how the speaker presents the content. If the presenter is claiming to be the smartest person around and says their organization is “unbreakable” then that can undoubtedly invite some negative attention. If the presenter is merely sharing some experiences and trying to further the conversation, then it’s rarely an issue.
In some cases, there may be a fear of disclosing sensitive internal information or internal process. Maybe the company feels an attacker can use the information to formulate more accurate attacks.
Your people should be smart enough to know what content is sensitive internally and not disclose. After all, don’t you have an awareness program for that? If there are any doubts, you could always review the content before submitting rather than creating a blanket denial.
On the disclosure front, I think there is also a little bit of not wanting to look “stupid.” Security problems can be tough to solve (even simple ones in some cases), and many are just trying to figure it out. Some may worry about their customers thinking they don’t have it together, but one thing I’ve learned in my career is customers appreciate due diligence.
We have real problems with information sharing in the security community as it is without further restrictions. Information such as lessons learned, information on attacks and intelligence as well as mitigation of risk could be helpful to the community as a whole. The more share, the better off we’ll be.
On the other side, it may be pressure from a vendor over a responsible disclosure process. I’ve seen a few companies push deadlines to try and stop people from presenting their findings at a conference.
Healthy responsible disclosure pushes vendors to ensure they are performing due diligence on their side. If you’ve given a vendor 60 to 90 days, then that is more than fair. At that point, you have fulfilled your obligation when it comes to responsible disclosure, and you should support the continuation of the process by disclosing.
Somewhere, buried deep inside your organization is an ancient policy that states people can’t speak at conferences. This policy hasn’t seen an update since its creation because everything in the company is more important.
I think we can all agree that policy for the sake of policy is bad. The intention of that policy is probably lost (or relates to the previous two points) and the default answer when you ask about it is, “well, that’s just the way it’s always been.”
Don’t look at that policy as a fixed object. Maybe the reason it has never changed is that there hasn’t been a champion to address the issues with it. If the policy is necessary, adjust it with new processes, where there is a certain amount of review (hopefully not painful and lengthy).
Times when you can’t speak
In this post, I’ve covered why you should let people speak. You may be wondering if there are situations which you shouldn’t support a conference presentation. The answer to this question, unfortunately, is yes.
The first situation that comes to mind is if there is an NDA in place or some terms and conditions that prohibit disclosure. This should be obvious, but if you have an NDA that prohibits disclosure of details, then you have to abide by it. Keep in mind that some companies can use T’s and C’s to try and discourage disclosure, see Adventures in Vulnerability Disclosure from Google’s Project Zero.
There may be other times as well, such as revealing your intellectual property or damaging a business relationship. I will say that each of these is highly situational and should be fairly obvious. None of them are good reasons to create a blanket statement of not allowing people to present.
Call to Action
If you are a security leader, hopefully, this has softened your position on the subject of speaking at security conferences. If you are in favor, but someone above you objects or a policy related issue exists, then start now to add some clarity around this topic. Lead with the benefits and do your best to dispel any myths or old beliefs. It may not be easy, but in the long run, it will be worth it. Be the change agent your company needs you to be.
If you found this article interesting, you may also be interested in this article ‘Keys to a Successful Infosec Conference Submission’
Nathan has presented his research at global security events including Black Hat, DEF CON, HOPE, ShmooCon, SecTor, ToorCon and many others. He is also a member of the Black Hat review board where he evaluates research for inclusion into the various conferences around the world.