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Is the RSA Conference Safe?

The security conference might not be practicing what it preaches.

SAN FRANCISCO—The RSA security conference here is all about helping to educate and give people the tools to be safe in the modern digital world.

In a stroke of potential irony, however, the conference might not necessarily be practicing what it preaches.

For one, unlike some of the other major tech conferences that I attend, RSA this year does not have an encrypted WPA WiFi access point for attendees or even for the press.

What that means is that all information is sent in the clear by default, and anyone can sniff the traffic.

It's no surprise that people are sniffing traffic at a security conference; I got an email from a public relations person about one vendor doing just that. Apparently, Kent Lawson, founder and CEO of Private WiFi, conducted some sniffing exercises on the RSA network.

So what did Lawson find?

Not surprisingly, he found people using the WiFi network for everything that you'd expect, ranging from checking email to searching Google and reading news sites (hopefully a few were reading eWEEK!).

According to Lawson's PR person, some other activities were more "delicious," including visiting and and reading articles on "the world’s 7 best party countries" and "18 ways to seriously anger a stripper."

The lesson, of course, is a simple one. If you connect on an unencrypted network, your data can be seen by anyone. It doesn't matter if you're at RSA or Starbucks; you're not safe.

The solution is twofold. For one, it is my strong belief that conferences—and coffee shops—should do their part to protect users. Enabling WPA WiFi and encrypting access point traffic is one way to start. Yes, I know there is a performance impact and I know it's not user-friendly, but it should always be available as an option to users.

The second part is to never pass information that you consider to be valuable over an unencrypted link. Simply having a proper SSL certificate on a given Website typically affords users the protection that is needed. Going a step further, a virtual private network (VPN) gives users an encrypted tunnel, securing all traffic from prying eyes on an open network.

For RSA, however, the WiFi network might not be the only challenge. Security firm IOActive contacted me Wednesday afternoon to tell me that they consider the RSA mobile app to be insecure.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I now take everything that IOActive says with a grain of salt. This is the firm that last week accused consumer electronics vendor Belkin of having insecure devices with its WeMo connected home product. It turns out, the flaws that IOActive reported on were in fact patched before IOActive told the world that WeMo was vulnerable.

According to IOActive, the RSA mobile app is vulnerable to a man-in-the-middle attack that could enable an attacker to inject code and get a user's credentials. There is also an information disclosure flaw in that the RSA mobile app has a SQLite database file that includes the information of registered attendees.

I reached out to IOActive to see why they decided to tell the world about this now, and not the first day of the conference. I also asked them if they disclosed this information to the RSA Conference. As of 9 a.m. PT today, I haven't heard back from IOActive (and I first asked at 3 p.m. PT yesterday).

At the RSA Conference, many users were suspicious of RSA Security's relationship with the National Security Agency (NSA), but it turns out that isn't the only thing to be concerned about. In any event, the right thing for attendees of any conference is to be suspicious and, above all, always cautious.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.