If you were at a talk at Defcon this year in the Policy track, you probably
heard someone talk about how they, as a government official, are there to
address "market failures". And immediately you thought: This is a load of
Because that government official is not allowed to, and has no intentions
of, addressing any market failures whatsoever. If the Government was going
to address market failures, they'd have to find some way to convince every
cloud provider from making their security features the upsell on the
Platinum package. They'd have to talk about how trying to get into
different markets means every social media company faces huge pressures to
put Indian spies on their network.
Obviously you know, as someone who did not emerge from under a rock into
the security community yesterday, that the answer to having a malicious
insider on your network is probably some smart segmentation, which we call
"Zero Trust" now.
But Zero Trust is expensive! And most social media companies are not
exactly profitable as the great monster known as TikTok has eaten every
eyeball in every market because the very concept of having people
explicitly choose who their friends are is outdated now.
In fact, as everyone is pointing out, almost all companies you know are in
this position! They're cutting costs by sending jobs overseas while
spending huge amounts of money propping up their stock prices and paying
their executives to sell them to a dwindling market of buyers. Private
Equity companies spend every effort on squeezing the last dollar out of old
enterprise software by exploiting the lock-in they have on small
And as critical as Twitter is, we have the exact same dynamic with our
privatized water and power companies - who have no plans to make strategic
investments in security or anything really - which is why on public calls
you can hear them humiliating themselves asking Jen Easterly to absorb the
entire costs of their security programs.
The ideal practice for all of these companies is to offload their costs
onto the taxpayer, which is why instead of investing in security, they cry
for the FBI to go collect their bitcoin from whatever ransomware crews are
on their network this week using offensive cyber operations that themselves
cost the government an order of magnitude more than the bitcoin is worth.
As you're sitting in that Defcon talk, listening to someone from government
talk about how they only want to regulate with the "input of industry" or
something, you have to wonder: if this is every company we know, maybe the
market failure isn't just how hard it is to buy a good security product
because they all abuse the copyright system to avoid any kind of
performance transparency. Maybe it's also how hard it is to SELL a good
security product because every single company is trying to cut their budget
to the exact minimum amount that will allow them to tell the FBI they did
their best, and the FBI needs to go out there and pick up their slack.
As you wander the halls of the inaptly named Caesar's Forum, amidst a
living sea of the most neurodiverse Clan humanity has ever seen, you cannot
help but stop for a second to close your eyes amidst the cacophony and
mentally exclaim, "Look. Look at the world we have created!"
Sitting in the one cafe in the Paris hotel with food, a
tattooed thirty-something who has been to Defcon twice gives you advice on
how to do the conference. "Take the unirail." they say. "Also, you should
have a hacker name! Mine is 'youngblood''"
"Noted!" you respond. These are good ideas. The unirail in particular,
probably, because Vegas is overflowing - and decent food options and
anywhere to sit that is not beeping at you or showing grungy dystopian TV
ads the Cyberpunk 2077 developers would find over-the-top are impossible to
come by, making the conference ten times more exhausting than usual.
In that sense, you miss the Alexis Park days, sitting with Halvar Flake
next to a pool where everyone was more larval than they knew, watching
Dildog lauch BO2K to a thousand screaming fans in the same room Dino Dai
Zovi explained Solaris hacking an hour earlier.
Some of the best talks this year had no attendees at all - Orange Tsai's
talk was over Zoom, to a huge room, but with few butts in the seats. There
were a hundred "Villages" it seemed like, living a half-life between
physical space in the conference room and a Discord channel.
Defcon may be the worst and best place to learn anything in that way - the
environment is hopelessly chaotic, with two talks happening inches away
from each other, and only feet from a DJ pumping out house music. But
perhaps the best environment to learn in is the one in which you are most
My friends, we've conquered the world. What's next?
Right now, there is a, to put it mildly, ongoing discussion between
proponents of coercion and deterrence in cyber policy, and adherents of a
new theory, called *persistent engagement.* Maybe the sum total of the
people in the argument is less than a thousand, but as academic circles go,
it heavily influences the US Defense Department and IC, and through that,
the rest of the world, so it is fun to watch. Also obviously it has added
to infosec Twitter drama, which of course is the most important thing in
the whole Universe.
But while I try to keep this list technical, I wanted to put it into
context for people here, so they can better appreciate the Twitter drama.
But before I do that, I want to talk about a Defcon talk I attended. I'm
not going to say WHICH talk, since it was under Chatham House Rule, but it
was about cyber policy. When I pressed someone on an aspect of their policy
efforts and how it implicated technical experts without involving their
feedback (export control around penetration testing tools) they said "Well,
that was more an expression of our country's VALUES and so we didn't need
to listen to our technical experts".
And I thought that was very interesting! Because the technical community is
highly connected and paying attention to these sorts of things in a way
that didn't used to be the case. If your message on one issue is going to
be "When our values and the technical community's values don't align, we
don't bother listening to them" then they will all know immediately, and
all your other outreach efforts might as well be wasted air.
And this is true across the board - disintermediation via cyber is now a
I believe you can come at the theories of persistent engagement by looking
at it from a different perspective: Instead of saying "Here's a bunch of
data about what we see in cyber, and it looks a certain way, and that way
requires a new way of thinking" you ask yourself whether the fundamental
way of dealing with conflict in international relations literature can be
simplified down to coercion and deterrence when the system is a highly
connected network. In other words, the game theory math you would use for
dyads and bilateral relationships is great for looking at nuclear conflict
because that's how the problem is presented, but doesn't scale to the
problems we have for cyber conflicts, which are about emergent effects of
much more complicated systems.
That's why it's not just different, but downright wrong, to talk about
offense-defense balances when we look at cyber or cyber-enabled conflicts.
It's why the previous international relations work on deterrence and
coercion just doesn't apply cleanly, if at all. On one side (the wrong
side) you have people saying "Cyber is not strategic because it cannot hold
ground like infantry can!" and on the other side you have people building
international relations theories based on cycles of attack, on responses
and counter-responses to aggression in the cyber domain because you can
lead an entire country around by the nose ring that is TikTok.
At some level, we are going to have to stop talking about offensive cyber
operations as a corollary of SIGINT capability, and going to look more
holistically at COGINT.
To sum it up: Complexity in connectivity introduces phase changes in
systems. We now live in a highly connected world, and this means we need
new paradigms of international relations, whether you are under Chatham
House Rule or not.