General Keith Alexander

PRISM Watch: US Cyber Command Chief Addresses Black Hat

I’m here at the Black Hat Briefings in Las Vegas, the U.S.’s most prominent “hacker con.” I’ll be bringing you news and updates from the show and (a bit) from DEFCON for the remainder of the week.

General Keith Alexander
General Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command kicks off Black Hat with a keynote speech before an audience skeptical of government spying. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)


As for the Briefings – the long and short of things is that all the buzz right now is about General Keith Alexander’s keynote speech this morning. Of course, keynotes are always a big deal, but its not even 8:00 AM and there’s a bit of a crush in the press room, with TV crews from major media outlets setting up in the Augustus ballroom, where Alexander will speak.

Why? This speech is big because its one of the first – if not the first – post-PRISM public address by Gen. Alexander, who is the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) since the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden burst into the headlines. Alexander has granted interviews on the subject – providing background information to Congressional committees, talking to ABC News about the intelligence failure that led to the Snowden leak, and complaining to NBC News earlier this month that “terrorists benefitted” from the Snowden leak of information on the NSA’s PRISM program.

And Black Hat is hardly the kind of friendly audience that Alexander encountered on Capitol Hill or from the Beltway media corps. Founder Jeff Moss pointedly dis-invited “feds” (aka “government folk”) from DEFCON, Black Hat’s sister conference which starts later this week, saying that the hacker community and the U.S. government needed some time apart. (Wishful thinking.)

The mainstream media and, in fact, many rank and file Black Hat attendees will be looking for Alexander to wade in to the PRISM leak and, more importantly, the PRISM program – articulating some kind of response to what seems to most folks like a wanton and wholesale program of government spying on U.S. citizens.

Black Hat - Augustus Ballroom
Media crews set up ahead of Gen. Keith Alexander’s keynote speech at Black Hat

I, also, hope that happens. Alexander could use the speech to throw the windows open on PRISM and programs like it. But, if my decade + of security reporting tells me anything, its that Alexander is almost certain to “not go there,” beyond the kind of passing mention that circumstances demand. My guess is that this speech will be a big disappointment to privacy advocates and mainstream media anxious for insight into the Administration’s thinking about PRISM.

Instead, expect lots of talk of the importance of offensive and defensive cyber to the future of the U.S. military, the dark threat posed by Chinese state sponsored hacking groups and — yes — the need for “more cooperation” between the private sector and the government and military. (If Alexander was smart, he’d dispense with Powerpoint slides and post his email on the enormo-screen at the front of the Augustus Ballroom, inviting anyone in the audience who thinks they might want to hack for the military to drop him a line.) I think its far more likely that Alexander will take up the challenge of Moss’s “shun the fed” – talking about the need for engagement, not walls, than it is that he’ll go deep on PRISM and the need for surveillance.

But we’ll see – the speech starts shortly and Security Ledger will bring you more information from the show. Stay tuned.

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