In the spirit of Dan Geer’s keynote addresses I wrote out the Keynote I did for Circle City Con in Indianapolis this year. With lots of copyediting help from @bouncinglime here it is, cleaned up and made much more readable.

Circle City Con Keynote

Friday, June 13, 2014

The witches of infosec

I was talking to a friend the other day, someone who’s not a security person or even a technology person – by his own admission, just an “average person.” Every time he uses a smartphone or the internet, it seems like magic to him. When he reads about hackers, it’s like hearing about people who are so good at magic they can bend it to their own will, and it’s spectacular. Arthur C. Clarke observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so it’s easy to see how someone who’s not as involved as we are in technology might see our everyday world as magical.

He said being on the internet is like being dropped into The Land of Oz. Everything is in Technicolor instead of black and white, munchkins are running around, somebody hands you a lollipop, people sing and dance and cheer. It’s bizarre and wonderful and kinda confusing and completely unthinkable. But it’s a place he wants to explore and get to know. He doesn’t know the physics or normalities of the place – and he’s fine with that, as long as he can do what he wants to do. It’s fun!

Then in a splash of smoke and a billow of fire comes this haggard green-faced witch, wearing a black hat no less. That’s the evil hacker. And a white witch floats over in a bubble and sends the scary one running away. That’s the world he sees when he’s on the Internet – a wild cacophony of “average people” that is occasionally invaded by witches. The average person can’t necessarily see the difference between good and bad witches, but is glad that the good ones exist to drive the bad ones away.

Technological progress and adaptation

This view of the Internet is really not surprising. In his lifetime computer technology has turned over three times. Computers began as mainframe computers that took up a room, then were PCs that merely took up a desk, and now we have phones and tablets in our pockets, and supercomputers on demand in the Cloud… That’s somewhere over the rainbow, right? In a few short years, we’ve gone from no connectivity, to wired and wireless, now to the global always-on connectivity our pocket devices demand. And we’re about to launch into wearables/implantables, with personal-area and mesh networks.

We’re at a point right now where technology is evolving faster than we are able to adapt to it in a single generation. Only the people who are hyper-specialized can understand it. This massive intra-generational shift has a profound effect on our humanity, culture, and social contract.

Public policy, legal precedent, and law enforcement that was well adapted 30 years ago is now hopelessly antiquated. We have to conduct open debates on whether the Internet is a telecommunications network or an information service, and what that means for established laws, regulations and precedents. Our culture has to get used to pervasive tracking and surveillance, our loss of privacy, and the fact that governments and companies know more about us than we know about ourselves. Whether we like it or not, our metadata is a matter of public record now. The predictive power – and potential benefit – of this information is too much for anyone to ignore. This isn’t maliciousness, it’s simply a case of policy and law being mis-matched with a quickly changing reality.

Given 50-100 years all of these will catch up and our great grandkids, as awkward teenagers, will laugh at us for being so goofy and confused with at this time in our technological development. These growth spurts happen periodically throughout history before settling back down. We are in one of those growth spurts right now, but it will not last forever. One thing that will last forever is the persistence of computer technology into our everyday lives. This gives us, the ones with the ability to make that technology do anything we want, serious superpowers. And with great power comes great responsibility.

We’re at a key moment in history…. Will you watch? Will you heckle? Will you help? Will you lead?

Where cybersecurity meets humanity

I’ve been playing with computers all my life – building them and, more often, breaking them and having to fix what I’d broken. Sometimes even breaking into them to play practical jokes on my friends. Finding and fixing computer flaws was my hobby. I was a security amateur before I was a security professional.

My third day on the job in Infosec was terrifying. I got a call from a physician in the Natal Intensive Care Unit – where the most fragile babies are brought just after they’re born. Their Fetal Heart Monitoring systems were all down. The doctor on the phone said he knew it wasn’t our job to support them but that they needed help. So I did. A quick investigation showed the medical devices had all the signs that they’d gotten hit with the same network worm that had recently been infecting other computers.

I called the manufacturer and asked their first-line support personnel if they could fix the problem since the devices were brand new but, since it was likely malware, they couldn’t. I asked for access to the device to fix it myself. The vendor said that since it’s a medical device we weren’t allowed to modify it or have access. That wasn’t good enough for me; if the network worm could break into the medical device, could I?

Sure enough there a Metasploit module had just been released for the vulnerability that the worm used. I knew I could fix the problem technically, but it’s not enough to know that the we can do something with technology. We must still ask if we should do it.

I worked with my boss to get permission. We put together a plan and a justification which she took to the CEO of the hospital, who read and approved it. Within the day I was able to go in, get rid of the malware, apply the patch, and get the systems stable again. I went back to my job and the doctors went back to saving lives.

I Am The Cavalry inception

Josh Corman and Nick Percoco gave a talk, “The Cavalry Isn’t Coming,” at DEF CON 21. There were three simple but profound ideas behind their talk: our dependence on technology is growing faster than our ability to secure it; our technological capabilities have outstripped our ability to adapt our social contract; and our society has evolved faster than our laws. Security researchers are the key to restoring the balance between all of these aspects.

1. Computing technology is being rapidly adopted into the world around us. We struggle daily – and often fail – to secure our companies. Meanwhile software and networks permeate every aspect of our lives in our cars, our bodies, our homes, and our public infrastructure. When human life and public safety are at stake it is no longer acceptable to have the same failures that are routine in other Information Technology. We must know, not just assume, that the technology we depend on is worthy of our trust.

2. Technology has rapidly changed what we are able to do. We are being watched and tracked by corporations and governments. On the one hand this gives us the utmost convenience; on the other hand it destroys our privacy and allows repression of dissent. There is nothing in our human experience that has prepared us for pervasive surveillance and “Glassholes”. We’re struggling to adapt to the impacts that computer and network technologies have had on us as a society as humans. We no longer need to ask whether technology can do something, but we have not yet begun asking if it should.

3. Our policy and legal apparatus stabilizes society by setting a standardized expectation and reducing harm. It cannot keep pace with the rate of change of our technology. Policy is a tool for defining norms and expectations. Laws are tools to enforce these norms and expectations. When the cultural norms fall so far behind, policies and laws fall out of sync with reality. Our laws today fail to distinguish between those making good faith inquiries into the soundness of these technologies from those who wish to exploit weaknesses for personal or ideological gain.

Surely there must be some task force studying these crucial issues, or some think tank brainstorming on it. One thing has become clear: no one is waiting in the wings to save us. The Cavalry isn’t coming. It falls to us – it falls to you – to lead the charge.

We, as the information security community, know what the problems are. We have the technical knowledge to know what should be changed. We see ourselves as defenders of those who need it. This understanding compels us to do the right thing, and step up to help. Like it or not, we are the adults in the room. And that should scare the hell out of us, but it should never stop us.

I Am The Cavalry today

The idea moved the hundreds of people in the room. A web presence, social media, and discussion list brought people together who believed in helping. The idea became a meme and the meme gathered like-minded individuals to the watering holes. It spawned leadership tendencies in a lot of us who knew we couldn’t just sit here and watch; we had to be the change we wanted to see.

I Am The Cavalry, today, is a global grassroots organization that is focused on issues where computer security intersects public safety and human life. We strive to ensure that these technologies are worthy of the trust we place in them. We are seeking to organize as a non-profit educational foundation, focusing on medical devices, automobiles, home electronics and public infrastructure. We are a movement of collecting, connecting, collaborating, and catalyzing : Collecting existing research and researchers; connecting these resources with each other and stakeholders in media, policy and legal stakeholders; collaborating across a broad range of backgrounds and skillsets; catalyzing research and corrective efforts sooner than would happen on their own.

Our message is that our dependance on computer technology is increasing faster than our ability to safeguard ourselves. As computerization and connectivity become more ubiquitous, it’s important that we protect public safety and human life.

Our mission is to ensure technologies with the potential to impact public safety and human life are worthy of our trust. We will achieve this mission through education, outreach and promoting research, and as an independent voice of reason from the security community.

What we’ve learned

Over the past nine months since the I Am The Cavalry namespace started, we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to approach getting things done in this space – where to focus, how to engage, whom to engage, etc. We have struck a chord with our focus on devices that have the potential to impact human life and public safety. These are big issues that are not just technical, they span many boundaries. These types of non-technical problems beg for non-technical solutions.

When talking with lawmakers on policies and laws we wanted to see changed, we quickly found out that they our message didn’t interest them. They simply didn’t care about theoretical problems that might come up due to Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) or Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The perspective we brought was at odds with what they were hearing from their peers and colleagues. They felt like we were “a bunch of whiny brats” complaining just like any other special interest group. In short, we weren’t giving them the “why.”

When we did, everything changed.

“A friend of mine, Jay Radcliffe, almost died when his insulin pump failed. He got a different one and it happened again. Both near-fatal accidents were caused by software flaws in the pumps themselves. Digging into these flaws, he found several critical security issues which could have triggered the failures. Another security researcher, Barnaby Jack, found that he could make these types of medical devices administer a fatal dose of insulin from 300 feet away.”

Those kinds of vignettes gain attention. Demonstrating public good through security research earns us the opportunity to bring up the conflict between the law and exploring the problem space. This experience taught us it was even more important than we thought to focus on the human life and public safety aspect. We need a lot more of these types of proof points if we want to keep getting through to lawyers, policymakers, and others outside the echo chamber.

Policymakers and their staffers also began bringing us in to ask intelligent questions. Recently there has been a perfect storm of several events, beginning with Senator Markey’s letter to automakers asking about ensuring the safety of the computers in the cars. Then the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published notification of software security vulnerabilities on 300 medical devices, which could have an impact on patient care. People were “stunt hacking” cars at Black Hat a few months ago. These are the sorts of events and issues that catch the attention of public media outlets, creating instant interest and attention. The world is listening right now, and we need to have something to say.

Inspiration at the heart

A lot of people get inspired by the I Am The Cavalry message. At the heart of the movement is an inspiration and a motive to empower hackers to make the change they want to see.

There’s a great YouTube video by Dan Pink about what motivates and inspires people to take action. The gist of it is that once we get beyond a certain level of satisfying our most basic needs, people are motivated by three things : Autonomy, a feeling of control over your life priorities that allow you to produce your own results; Mastery, an urge to see progress and development in a skill; and Purpose, to have a meaning beyond profit, to “put a dent in the universe.”

For a lot of the most productive people in the world, this is why they get up in the morning. They have all three of these things. This is also what inspired a lot of us to go into security research as well – being self-directed to work on doing this cool elegant hack, learning and exploring, and then showing it off and getting it fixed.

Slowly, though, the joie de vivre of exploration and discovery gave way to something else. Our passion became our day job, and our fun turned into work. 60-80 hours of work a week. Every week. Into forever. At some point in my career I realized that the medical device hack I pulled off was the peak of my professional career. In nearly 10 years I hadn’t done anything as impactful to the real world as I did in my first week. That was a difficult realization. I burned out. Burnout isn’t something we talk about a lot in the industry. We just pour another drink or make another “stupid user” joke and get back to feeling frustrated, powerless, and overworked. It’s had some pretty devastating consequences on us as an industry. Some people never get burned out and I’m happy for them. Others do, and we have to claw out of it.

That’s the inspiration people see in I Am The Cavalry. It inspires hope, and a lot of people haven’t known hope in a long time. To make real progress on something positive and powerful. To prevent problems before they come up. To learn something new and valuable. To move from the trough of despair to the slope of enlightenment and the plane of productivity.

Why it moves us

I Am The Cavalry is one namespace within a much broader movement and community. We aren’t the first people to feel our current path will lead to no good, that we have to do better. Those are the feelings that sparked this movement, and continue to drive it forward.

Curiosity is a hacker prerequisite. This new problem space gives us a chance to once again explore the unknown, one that’s full of interesting new technologies and combinations of existing technologies. This kind of thing is why a lot of us started learning about security in the first place. The problems we are investigating aren’t trivial. We’re trusting our families’ lives with these machines. It’s not acceptable to fail and so we have to persevere.

The problems in the space will first be known, then addressed, then fade into history. You can push that timeline forward, be the one who helps things get better, faster. Whether you choose to talk about that or not, it will bring a sense of accomplishment. If you do want to talk about it there’s plenty of opportunity. Conference CFPs tend heavily towards Android malware and PCI, but a talk about hacking an insulin pump or a car will have fighting people in line to go see that talk. Ask Jay Radcliffe, Charlie Miller, or Chris Valasek. That’s beyond a stunt hack; it’s something that matters.

I think we’re going to see a rapid shift from research of convenience to research that matters. Take a look at the DEF CON tracks this year. Every one of them is something that matters. The world’s most famous hacking conference is shifting the research agenda for the industry. That’s awesome. It’s also a lot faster to research some of the areas we’re talking about. There hasn’t been nearly as much focus on it so there’s more low hanging fruit. You’ll spend the same amount of time finding the bug, but you won’t have to spend any time showing that it’s a big deal. Now your friends and family will know not just what you do but they’ll see why you do it.

Trying to make a change also means building different muscles. Ones for engaging the Media API. Ones for fuzzing the chain of influence. Ones for traversing policy and legal systems. Ones for bridging the interfaces between research and real-world application. We are simply using the methods we know very well, and applying them to a new set of systems – non-technical ones. This brings back the excitement of exploration. These new skills span boundaries into other areas of our lives, too. Explaining security to a journalist builds the same muscles as explaining them to your CEO. Understanding how to navigate complex political and legal systems helps when you want to organize community action for a new neighborhood playground.

We are pursuing a goal that’s bigger than us. This pulls us out of burnout and keeps us from going back. It transforms frustration into progress, futility into accomplishment, atrophy into exercise, and, most importantly, ignorance into education.

All of this is coming at a time when we’ve begun to get a real sense of the power we have. The media is focusing on hacking, and politicians are asking for advice. People are looking to us as if we have superpowers! It is time we stepped up and became those super heroes.


As I said earlier, in 50-100 years all of the things we’re talking about here will be figured out. Our self-driving cars will do it better than we could hope to faster, safer, and with fewer side effects. Our implanted and wearable computers with body area networks will be fast, robust, and stable. Criminal activity will be illegal but legitimate research will be protected by laws. Researchers will be treated with the same respect in security as they are in other fields. And our civil liberties issues will be settled – one way or another. That’s not my witch’s crystal ball, that’s a forward projection of history.

We need to cut down the amount of time we spend in this awkward period before our society has caught up to our technology. It is imperative that we accelerate the process of identifying and dealing with issues before they have more severe and widespread impacts. We should push for resolution of these issues now, instead of just waiting for it to happen on its own.

  1. By being the voice for reason and thoughtful discussion, we can reduce friction and collateral damage.
  2. Our actions will nudge the final position towards openness and freedom.
  3. Avoid a Cuyahoga River moment (but prepare just in case we get one).

Individual Examples

My friend Morgan Marquis-Boire (@headhntr), who’s been working with Citizen Lab, thinks we’re way off base by not pursuing privacy issues more. Morgan has spent a lot of his time dissecting malware that foreign governments use to track and surveil dissidents. For him privacy leaks kill every single day on an individual scale, and are genocide on a mass scale. He and Citizen Lab, as well as other groups like Telecomix and Tactical Tech, are fighting to preserve the Internet and protect those who use it to empower themselves. As he likes to say, that’s his fight but it might not be your fight.

Kyle Osborn took job at Tesla to improve vehicle safety. It began as an internal IT Security role available, but he was able to push the boundaries to turn it into something more. His work has created a coordinated disclosure policy, and large automakers in Detroit are taking notice.

Scott Erven found hundreds of issues in medical devices, but after failing to get the FDA or the manufacturers to fix the problem, notify their customers, or take any action he gave up. Billy Rios knew the solution already and, through his contacts at DHS ICS-CERT, was able to get it published. This caught the attention of the FDA, who issued a public notification of the vulnerabilities. Because of all the attention, the vendor undertook internal reviews from the very top.

Many of the very small “Internet of Things” makers think more about shipping than security, not out of deliberate neglect but because they have no resources for it. Mark Stanislav and Zach Lanier got together and started Build It Securely project which works directly with with chipset makers, vendors, and others to give practical guidance to people using their products. All of the information is published openly on the Internet, giving easy access to those who don’t have time or resources to do the research themselves.

Call to action

Leaders are not born, but self-made. There’s a subtle but important difference there. Leaders make themselves when given the right motivation and opportunity. I used to think that leadership positions were given to people but I’ve come to realize that they’re never given, only taken or accepted.

Leadership is simply initiation and persistence in a particular direction. Start something, even when no one else is. Especially when no one else is. Continue in spite of, and especially after, setbacks. Find direction from whatever inspires you to start and to continue. That’s up to you. It’s not easy, but it’s also not hard.

The challenges we face are daunting but tractable. We have the right set of skills and are here at the right time to solve them, but we must start now. Every day we delay makes the work more difficult and the consequences higher and the likelihood of failure higher.

I Am The Cavalry is not just about joining a common cause under the leadership of others. Although it can be for some. It’s about becoming leaders ourselves. It’s not “I Am The Cavalry. Come join me.” It’s “I Am The Cavalry. And you are too. We are all the cavalry!” It’s not about people following, it’s about people leading. I Am The Cavalry. And you are too. It’s up to all of us to lead the charge.

Thank you.