RSA keynoters speak volumes

Times have changed, and RSA Conference keynote speakers no longer need cryptography and security backgrounds. This year's headliners include several rock stars of the IT industry, along with some newcomers and several old veterans.

Speeches at the RSA Conference used to be reserved for folks like Martin Hellman, Whitfield Diffie and others with serious cryptography--or at the very least, security--backgrounds. But as security has evolved from the backwater of IT into one of the top concerns of CEOs and CIOs, the content at the conference has morphed to reflect this new reality.

Now, cryptographers are relegated to a single panel discussion on Tuesday morning, and tech industry heavyweights such as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Tom Noonan highlight a crowded keynote schedule. Gates, Microsoft's chairman, is returning to the RSA Conference for the fourth consecutive year, while Oracle CEO Ellison is making his debut. Noonan, the longtime CEO of Internet Security Systems, is now the president of the ISS unit of IBM, which acquired his company last year--yet another indicator of how much things have changed in recent years.

"This isn't a technologist's conference anymore. It's much broader than that, which shows how important security has become overall," said Pete Lindstrom, senior analyst at the Burton Group.

Industry observers expect many of the keynote speeches to focus on the growing need for better application-level security. Instead of writing big network worms that do a lot of damage and make a lot of noise, attackers recently have been focusing much of their efforts on exploiting weaknesses in databases, browsers, and the emerging class of AJAX-based applications in order to steal confidential data or plant rootkits and Trojans in strategic locations.

"I like to call targeted attacks and spyware the center of the market. I think what we're seeing is market segmentation by hackers," said Gene Hodges, CEO of Websense, who will be delivering a keynote speech for the first time this year. "This is standard commercial behavior visible in hacker elements: segmenting businesses and customers of a business."

Just a few years ago, the notion of Gates--or any Microsoft executive-- giving a speech at the conference would have been laughable. All that changed when Gates sent his now-famous Trustworthy Computing memo in January 2002. In the intervening five years, Microsoft has instituted secure software development practices that have become the industry standard, completely overhauled its security response process, and generally made good on Gates' promise to build products that emphasize security over everything, including functionality. And now it is Oracle's turn as the security punching bag. Ellison, the man behind the company's infamous "Unbreakable" ad campaign, will be addressing an audience of researchers and security specialists who have been pressuring Oracle to improve the security of its products.

Also taking the stage this year are a number of other newcomers, including noted technologist and artificial intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil; former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell; Deborah Platt Majoras, chairman of the FTC; and John Swainson, CEO of CA.

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