Monday, September 14, 2015

If you’re going to be upset with me, please do it for the right reasons.

First- I’m speaking personally here, I am not speaking for anyone else, or for any organization, just for me.

Second, please remember that BSides Las Vegas is not Security BSides. Each Security BSides event is organized and operated separately. Although there are familiar faces at some BSides (and also at many other non-BSides events) they are separate events and organizations. As of this writing there have been 202 Security BSides events across 83 cities which were not BSidesLV. Please do not let any frustration you have with Security BSides Las Vegas damage the work of thousands of people building communities around the globe.

I doubt I’ll change any minds, but I want people to understand my perspective on what happened between Security BSides Las Vegas, Inc. and Adrian Crenshaw, better known as Irongeek to many. Adrian has been a huge asset to the security and hacker communities for many years, providing videography and other services to a myriad of events- generally for free or for token assistance with expenses. Until recently I considered Adrian a friend, and I still do- although I doubt he feels the same towards me; I can’t blame him if he no longer considers me a friend and this truly saddens me. I still have a great deal of respect for Adrian and for what he does and has done for the communities he serves. Adrian’s website, is an amazing resource, it houses a phenomenal archive of presentations from a multitude of conferences.

If you are unaware of the situation, it might be good to see Rob Graham’s post at Errata Security, Rob has a detailed and independent view, and also see the official statement from the BSides Las Vegas Board of Directors. Or maybe you’ll want to ignore it altogether, many do.

Some folks mistakenly think this was about Adrian’s views on women and is some kind of politically correct attempt to silence him; that is absolutely wrong. We (I and other members of the BSidesLV board) have defended Adrian’s right to voice his opinions; even when BSidesLV was challenged for having someone with some of his views on staff we defended his right to express himself and we continued to embrace Adrian as part of the BSides Las Vegas team.

We are a diverse community, and we have diverse opinions. Security BSides Las Vegas has encouraged diverse voices from the beginning, including content some found offensive. From Val Smith’s brilliant social and political rant at the first event through John McAfee last year, from topics like 3-D printed sex toys to prostitution on Craigslist, we have never been shy about hosting and encouraging challenging ideas. Some will remember that BSidesLV’s response to an unfortunate situation with Violet Blue at another event was to invite Violet to keynote BSidesLV 2013 to make sure her voice was heard.

I do not want to silence Adrian. I have defended his right to voice his opinions, including those I strongly disagree with, and I will continue to do so. I’m no Voltaire, but the quote from Evelyn Beatrice (often misattributed to Voltaire himself)

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

applies here. OK, maybe not all the way to death, but you get the idea.

So what happened?  Adrian inserted offensive popups between content hosted on his site and anyone accessing the site from Mississippi State University, apparently because of a long-running disagreement with Wesley McGrew, an associate professor at MSU.  Wesley has had disagreements with others in the past, but that isn’t really relevant here. Regardless of what Wesley said or did to Adrian, part of Adrian’s response used content donated to the community and entrusted to BSidesLV to advance his personal agenda without the consent or even knowledge of those whose videos were hosted on Adrian’s site. BSides Las Vegas was notified and called out publicly and privately for the offensive material and once it became public, the response had to be public. Sadly, the appropriate response was terminating our relationship with Adrian and stating it publicly.

Although not part of my decision to support the board’s actions, I feel the issue was compounded because the few who saw the offending messages were students; the next generation of our industry was exposed while trying to learn from community contributed content.

I regret the action we had to take, but I stand with the board. Could we have handled it better? Of course- but I’m not sure exactly how. Maybe the wording of the statement could have been better, but the entire board was involved in drafting the statement. If you have genuinely constructive suggestions or criticisms, I welcome them.

That’s the short version (yeah, almost 800 words is the short version), but I’m including a few points below to address specific comments I’ve seen. There’s no prize for reading to the end, but if you want more context, please read on.

The fact that few saw the message, and that the content was available elsewhere does not change the fact that community contributed content was used to promote offensive messages in a personal disagreement.

No, it wasn’t just an “April Fools” joke, I checked my calendar and couldn’t find April 1 anywhere in September. It may have started with that, but it ran long after April 1, and the timing of hundreds of hours of new content uploaded over the summer and a new semester at the university inevitably led to the offensive messages being seen by students and reported publicly.

And to be clear, Adrian is not “banned” from BSidesLV. I would welcome him with open arms if he ever wants to attend another BSides Las Vegas.

Oh, and David Kennedy is a gentleman. Many people are only friends when it is easy to be friends- which isn’t really what I consider friendship. David, thank you for being a friend with whom I can disagree and still remain friends.

About the public response- in the past several years I have helped to mediate a number of conflicts, both public and private, within the hacker and InfoSec communities. One of the clear lessons I’ve learned is that once an issue is public any attempt to sweep it under the rug is likely to backfire. Had the BSides Las Vegas Board of Directors attempted to be silent on this issue we would have been called out for it, and the issue would have become public, but not in any way under our control.

The immediate rush by some to take sides wasn’t unexpected, but it was generally disappointing. I have received many messages of support, but some were concerning rather than comforting. There seemed to be a significant, but not universal, split along an already stressed line; those who primarily self-identify as “hackers” were more likely to attack BSidesLV, those who identify as “InfoSec” were much more likely to support BSidesLV. I guess we still have work to do bridging the gap, and those of us who straddle it continue to struggle. Statements like “there’s no room for misogynists in InfoSec” are problematic for me. I’ve had my little battles with systemic misogyny, notable the “booth babe” phenomenon; this led to my parody company Misogyny Networks and a few amusing encounters. But “there’s no room for (X)ists in (Z)” is troubling once we abstract it from the specifics. Thierry Zoller recently shared a video on “The Right to Offend”, delivered by Brendan O’Neill at Oxford, That video and by Shami Chakrabarti at the same event are powerful reminders of the importance of dissent and the freedom to offend.

A factor that some have overlooked is that BSidesLV is different than many conferences. Security BSides Las Vegas, Inc. is a Nevada Charitable and Educational Non-Profit Corporation, and a 501(c)(3). The current corporation and board were built after BSides Las Vegas reorganized after earlier struggles, it was a conscious decision to create a 501(c)(3) and create a transparent and structured entity- but that meant being a real corporation, with lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, insurance, directors, officers, and policies. And legal and financial restrictions. It also means that we annually review and sign our conflict of interest policy and submit it to the Nevada Secretary of State; it means we have our Sarbanes-Oxley-mandated Compliance Officer, and a lot of other fun things. At our size it means our tax forms do not end in –EZ, and they aren’t completed in an afternoon. It means we act like a corporation- because we are. So if the response seemed a bit corporate, it was. On the other hand, this structure means stability and survivability. It means unusual levels of transparency for a conference, including publicly available tax records and other filings. It also means that we are able to continue to offer free, anonymous, walk-in registrations since our non-profit status helps us manage expenses.

Hopefully you now understand my perspectives, and if you’re upset with me about this at least you’re upset for the right reasons.