SWITCH Security-Blog

SWITCH-CERT IT-Security Blog

ONE: The first NCSC conference


A year ago GovCERT.nl ceased to exist. The new kid on the block was the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC). Together with GovCERT.nl their famous conference went away and many were wondering if something like the Symposium would ever come back.

The opening ballet if the first NCSC conference in The Hague setting the high standards for the rest of the conference.

The opening ballet at the first NCSC conference in The Hague setting the high standards for the rest of the conference.

The comeback indeed was a flamboyant start of what hopefully becomes a new tradition. Restarting an already great event is never easy, but our Dutch colleagues showed us that it’s possible. With over 850 participants this was a mega event. Impressing was the mixture of participants. From suits to geeks and nerds. Strange world: the latter often seems to be more narrow minded than the former.

Equally diverse was the program, from highly political to deep technical. I was very impressed and touched with the two keynotes focusing on China. The inside view went far beyond what’s usually served in main stream media.

In the first talk “How does Chinese government control Internet?” Michael Anti explained  the Chinese version of Web 2.0. Essentially all big platforms have purely Chinese copies  available, behind the great firewall, which blocks the western originals. This allows for much greater control, the servers are then, after all, located in China.  Foreign companies can offer services, provided they are prepared to pay the price: access to all data. Google would or could not.

But the Chinese government does not merely control the internet media. With 560 Million users in China services like Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) are a perfect communication, not to say propaganda channel. So in the case of an outage it’s usually government officials which are on the phone first.

In a second talk “People’s Republic of China use of the Computer as a Weapon System” William Hagestad II, an ex military and sinologist gave the a daunting view of the Chinese stand on Cyber War. Hagestad emphasised that we should be talking about Cyber conflict, not cyber war. Having been there he should know.
Hagestad reasoned that the the red army got the job to protect the people and infrastructure of China from foreign agressors. In military sense defence means the offensive capabilities. Today China is the only country that actually has a set of principles governing their actions in a potential cyber-conflict. Hagestad accuses the West failing to understand and learn about Chinese history and culture. I’m afraid he has a point here.

Indeed, being preoccupied with a certain view has it’s dangers. This was, quite entertainingly, shown by Sharon Conheady in her talk “Future of Social Engineering“. To keep a long story short: Social Engineering hasn’t really changed in the past 500 years. But technology gives it a new angle. By the way: If you’re hiding in the washrooms after entering someones premises change stalls occasional to not alert the cleaning staff.

On a more technical note was the “Forensics 101” presentation by Christiaan Prickaerts. He showed the power of simple and free tools to get out more and this quicker. Incident response, so Prickaerts, often needs quick answers and deals with large systems.  This got me prepared for “Exploit Kits vs Underground Economy” by Vitaly Kamluk from Kaspersky. While the kits are amazing or rather shocking, even more astonishing is the fact, that the AV guys seem to use the same free tools we use too. A pessimist would say that this explains the dire state of the AV industry. Personally I try to cultivate optimism and conclude that these free tools are pretty good.

Quite spaced off was Konstantinos Karagiannis talk on “Quantum computing”. If only Mr. Spock were still with us. Mind boggling but with a good chance to become reality. Mind you: Karagiannis got the anecdote about Planck wrong. Planck named his famous constant “h” that way because he intended to let it go to zero. h in math, by convention, denotes a quantity going to zero. As it turned out, this was not possible and the h today is a fundamental constant of nature.

I mentioned in the beginning, that some of the nerds struck me as somewhat narrow minded.
The talks on Hackerspaces falls in this category. Maybe it’s old age, but I think the discussion about Hackers vs Crackers is over. Also the view of the lonesome hackers fighting big cooperate world seems pretty antiquated to me. The same could be said of the final keynote  “Tor and the Censorship Arms Race: Lessons Learned” by  Jacob Appelbaum” and Roger Dingledine. The two proponents certainly do good work, and Tor has it’s place in the world. But condemning all (lawful) interception and all censoring seems pretty naive and beside the point. Society has to decide how valuable privacy is and when there is a justified reason to invade it. Most European societies allow LI in severe cases but not easy ones. LEO may, with a courtorder, tap a murderers phone, but not a one of a person suspected for speeding.

Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament stressed exactly this in her talk “Security and freedoms in a digital, connected world”. Ms Schaake certainly destroyed ones prejudices about ignorant politicians. I would have loved to hear a discussion between Ms Schaake, Mr. Dingledine and Mr. Appelbaum.

I came home rather tired, but also inspired by the selection of outstanding speakers and topics. Well done NCSC and thanks for the invitation!

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