Stephen Colbert gives controversial security conference talk

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Stephen Colbert is not terribly worried about the NSA reading his emails.

“I don’t necessarily want people reading my emails but I’m not a spy, I don’t run a crime syndicate,” he said at the RSA computer security conference on Friday. “I’ve got things I don’t want people to know but I didn’t really go running for cover for a new way to encrypt.”

The comedian gave the closing keynote at the RSA conference, ignoring requests from privacy activists and some members of the cybersecurity community to back out of the event.

A number of security speakers dropped out of the RSA conference when Reuters reported in December that RSA had an undisclosed $10 million contract with the NSA to build a back door for the government agency into encryption software. Some protesters put on a counter-conference nearby called TrustyCon on Thursday. There were protesters passing out anti-NSA information outside of a conference location in downtown San Francisco.

Though not a security expert, Colbert’s reaction was closely watched by those outside of the community. RSA closes out its week-long conferences with big-name speakers, traditionally from the political sphere. Condoleezza Rice, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have all held the honor at previous conferences. This year it hired Colbert. Some called for the TV host to boycott the event, and privacy group Fight for the Future started an online petition asking Colbert not to attend.

“Now a lot of people, maybe some in this room, were upset to learn I’d be speaking here today. Many of you see me as a champion of privacy,” said Colbert. “Which I know because I read your emails.”

Colbert was quick to defend RSA and his decision to keep the paid gig. He said he believed the security company was exonerated by its claim to have promoted the supposedly compromised standard a full two years before the NSA payoff.

He asked if it was fair to boycott this conference when other major companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo had all been linked to the NSA. He also joked that as a freedom lover, he doesn’t engage in boycotts. And that he had signed a contract so his conscience was clear, as long as his checked cleared.

While the RSA got a pass, Colbert didn’t go as easy on the NSA or Edward Snowden, whom he referred to as “practically a war criminal” for taking top secret U.S. intelligence to China and then to Russia.

“Was Mordor not accepting asylum requests?” he quipped.

The lines between the blustering right-leaning character Colbert plays on TV and the more liberal comedian himself were fluid during the talk, but he seemed genuine in his criticisms of the agency and its famous whistleblower.

“We can trust the NSA 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,” said Colbert.

The rest of the talk was a mix of jokes and light political commentary, with some security humor thrown in to appease the cryptographer audience. He joked about his own fictional security startup, CloudFog, and took questions from the audience about Lord of the Rings, Jane Fonda, acting and politics.

In the end, the comedian placed the blame for the NSA’s programs on Americans.

“We all deserve credit for this new surveillance state that we live in because we the people voted for the Patriot Act. Democrats and Republicans alike,” said Colbert. “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.”

By Heather Kelly

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