Q&A with Stephen Bonner, speaker and panelist – RANT Conference

Let’s start by hearing a sneak preview of the talk you’ll be giving at RANT?
It will be on the subject of cyber war. The way some people talk about it annoys me, so that makes me passionate. It annoys me when people use phrases like “Digital Pearl Harbour” and compare the proliferation of cyber weapons with nuclear weapons. The way we overegg some of the threats, and make them sound like significant problems when they are not that important at all, does us no favours. I think we’d be better off being more realistic about the threats and benefits.

I’ll be saying that what’s happening now isn’t war and draw some parallels between what war is and isn’t like. But I’ll also talk about what it would look like if we did have a cyber war. I don’t think cyber war is impossible or all made up but I think the use of the phrase is wrong.

Using the word “war” and describing what’s happening now in that way normalises war, which I think is a terrible thing. Cyber war is only likely if we keep making it more and more normal.

And what about the panel you’ll be part of?
I hope that will be a little more light-hearted! The other talk is more about “You’re all doing it wrong, stop it,” and this is a bit more humorous. We’ve assembled a panel of people that have never sought to be security rock stars, but given them a platform to discuss how they became security rock stars and what the benefits are. They will also be offering advice to aspiring security rock stars! It’s firmly tongue-in-cheek, though.

With such an experienced panel the audience will be hanging on your every word. What’s the message you want them to take away from that and your talk?
To enjoy it would be my advice. With my talk, it’s very much about getting people to stand up and challenge people who throw around terrifying expression when they don’t match. It’s also about changing the message around cyber war and getting people to think about the definition of war, the Geneva Convention and so on. I think people perhaps aren’t properly preparing: people should be working harder to make war less likely and also working to reduce the consequences of it.

If phrases such as cyber war and Digital Pearl Harbour are wrong, what should we be calling it?
It’s just crime and theft. It’s still bad and can damage organisations and people, but it’s a crime, not war. And the proper response to crime is law enforcement, not intelligence agencies and the military. The more we position simple crimes as military actions the more comfortable people will be with taking military action.

I’m going to talk a bit about the features we see at the very high end in terms of espionage work and compare that to war. There are not very many stealth wars; once you’ve invaded you have to stand up and say hello. Mostly what we’re seeing is crime with a bit of espionage thrown in. A denial of service (DoS) is not war, it’s a protest, a riot. You stop protests and riots by arresting and prosecuting people, not by cluster bombing. There is a line and we need to be very clear about it.

You have been involved with The RANT Events for many years now. What do you think sets it apart from other security events?
It has an authenticity; it’s people talking about what they are passionate about rather than what they are told to be passionate about. There is an element of truth to the event; it’s a way to cut through some of the hype that can dominate the security industry. There are no keynotes where a DLP vendor tells you how important DLP is, or an antivirus vendor telling you how important that is.

RANT feels very much like a community, with people engaging and being honest about the things they like and dislike. I think that’s powerful and an important step towards being a more mature industry.

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