January 03, 2005

Frank Abagnale at CSI - Know me if you can

Axel's blog points to a storm in a teacup over at a professional association called the Computer Security Institute. It seems that they invited Frank Abagnale to keynote at their conference. Abagnale, if you recall, is the infamous fraudster portrayed in the movie Catch me if you can.


Many of the other speakers kicked up a fuss. It seems they had ethical qualms about speaking at a conference where the 'enemy' was also presenting. Much debate ensued, alleges Alex, about forgiveness, holier than thou attitudes and cashing in on notoriety.

I have a different perspective, based on Carl von Clausewitz's famous aphorism. He said something to the extent of "Know yourself and you will win half your battles. Know your enemy and you will win 99 battles out of a hundred." Those speakers who complained or withdrew have cast themselves as limited to the first group, the self-knowers, and revealed themselves as reliable only to win every second battle.

Still, even practitioners of narrow horizons should not be above learning from those who see further. So why is there such a paranoia of only dealing with the honest side in the security industry? This is the never-ending white-hat versus black-hat debate. I think the answer can be found in guildthink.

People who are truly great at what they do can afford to be magnaminous about the achievements of others, even those they fight. But most are not like that, they are continually trapped in a sort of middle level process-oriented tier, implementing that which the truly great have invented. As such, they are always on the defensive for attacks on their capabilities, because they are unable to deal at the level where they can cope with change and revolution.

This leads the professional tiers to always be on the lookout for ways to create "us" and "them." Creating a professional association is one way, or a guild, to use the historical term.


Someone like Frank Abagnale - a truly gifted fraudster - has the ability to make them look like fools. Thus, he scares them. The natural response to this is to search out rational and defensible ways to keep him and his ilk on the outside, in order to protect the delicate balance of trade. For that reason, it is convenient to pretend to be morally and ethically opposed to dealing with those that are convicted. What they are really saying is that his ability to show up the members for what they are - middle ranking professionals - is against their economic interests.

In essence, all professionals do this, and it should come as no surprise. All associations of professionals spend a lot of their time enhancing the credibility of their members and the dangers of doing business with those outside the association. So much so that you won't find any association - medical, accounting, engineering, or security - that will admit that this is all normal competitive behaviour. (A quick check of the CSI site confirms that they sell training, and they had a cyberterrorism panel. Say no more...)

So more kudos to the CSI for breaking out of the mold of us and them! It seems that common sense won over and Frank attended. He can be seen here in a photo op, confirming his ability to charm the ladies, and giving "us" yet another excuse to exclude him from our limited opportunities with "them" !

Posted by iang at January 3, 2005 08:59 AM | TrackBack
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