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Colbert at RSA: When Smart Equals Funny

I've been covering tech trade shows and user conferences for more than two decades, and last week's RSA conference was the first in my experience to include a comedic keynoter who actually understood the technology and the issues surrounding it. Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," gave the conference closer in San Francisco on Friday to a packed house, and killed.

"RSA developed this conference in 1991 as a forum for cryptographers to gather and talk shop," Colbert said, "and I assume breed with one another. Of course officially that's called exchanging private keys."

Colbert kidded conference organizers for booking FBI director James Comey as a speaker, and noted the director's comment that "At our best, we are looking for security measures that enhance liberty."

"Well said director," Colbert said. "I'm sure that under enhanced liberty you can have all the privacy that you want-just like under enhanced interrogation you can breathe all the water you want."

He also dinged Scott Charney, head of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing group, who also spoke.

"Not everyone can book a speaker from an Orwellian dystopia," he said. "I look forward to next year's speech from the executive director of Sweet Dreams Euthanasia Clinic, Incorporated."

Colbert laid into NSA leaker and conference buzz hog Edward Snowden during his talk, calling him "practically a war criminal" for taking top secret U.S. intelligence to China and then to Russia. "Was Mordor not accepting asylum requests?" he asked. (He's a known hardcore Tolkien fan.)

He also had a few choice words for the NSA: "We can trust the NSA," he said, "because without a doubt it is history's most powerful, pervasive, sophisticated surveillance agency ever to be totally pwned by a 29-year-old with a thumb drive."

Colbert addressed the boycott of the conference this year by 13 digital security experts, who canceled their talks after Reuters reported that RSA, the conference organizer and chief sponsor, had a $10 million contract with the NSA to set as the default in their encryption products a flawed formula for generating random numbers, which effectively created a back door.

Activists from Fight for the Future appealed to Colbert to join their boycott in an open letter, which read in part: "We know you, Stephen, and we know you love a good 'backdoor' joke as much as we do-but this kind of backdoor is no laughing matter...We want to hear your speech, but give it somewhere else!"

"The elephant in the room is that I was asked not to come [and] speak here," Colbert told his audience. "That came as something of a shock to me. Normally I'm asked not to be somewhere only after I've spoken."

"I looked at the signatures on the online petition," he added. "Then I looked at the signature-my signature-on the bottom of the contract saying I'd be here today, and my conscience was clear, as long as the check clears...Well, it's not actually a check. They gave me a bitcoin voucher from Mt. Gox, and I'm sure it's going to be fine."

At one point, Colbert offered a kind of acknowledgment of the American people for their support of the NSA's programs.

"We all deserve credit for this new surveillance state that we live in," he said, "because we the people voted for the Patriot Act. Democrats and Republicans alike. We voted for the people who voted for it, and then voted for the people who reauthorized it, then voted for the people who re-re-authorized it."

Colbert also pitched his own data security venture, CloudFog. "We take a novel horizontal approach to vertical socket encryption," he said. "The result can only be described as diagonal."

Here in Silicon Valley, smart often equals rich. I'm glad to see it sometimes equals funny.

Posted by John K. Waters on March 3, 2014