This January in Miami South Beach I announced the theme of S4x21 the following January: No Limits! We selected No Limits because our plan was to rethink every element of the event, unrestricted by what we did in the past or conference norms, AND we were going to place even more emphasis on sessions and ideas that broke conventional approaches. Encouraging new approaches and solutions that may be considered heresy by the traditionalists, and had the potential to create the future.

Then COVID-19 hit. It certainly knocked event organizers on our heels. Most companies moved to hunker down mode, if not to outright survival mode. It cast doubt on my keynote statement, “this is a great time to be in the ICS security industry”. While nothing is assured, it does look like opportunities for those in ICS security will bounce back quickly.

The social distancing and stay at home caused by COVID-19, as we all have experienced, resulted in virtual conferences and remote access / work from home. This makes sense as the immediate response to an unexpected event. It also shows the typical lack of imagination for what we can and should expect in the medium or long term.

When television started, the early programs and advertisements were simply radio program and advertisements where you could also see the vocal talent. When advertising arrived on the Internet, it was newspaper / magazine classified and display ads on web pages. When conferences moved virtual, they took the Powerpoint driven presentations and moved them live online. Like a never-ending webinar. Like the free post event videos put up on a YouTube channel (as on the S4 Events channel). Like other early forays into a different media, this direct transfer of approach is a blip in time.

My hope is that we will be able to resume in-person events without social distancing in the near future, hopefully in January 2021 and with a worst case of 2022. Even with the resumption, many will be tempted to say that virtual conferences can replace a large percentage of the in-person events. It will be interesting to see what kind of response Black Hat gets to a virtual event at a $995 price. 

While it is likely there will be fewer live events, and less travel overall as people have been forced to step back and consider what happens if they don’t go, I don’t expect the current ‘virtual conference’ to be more than a one or two year blip. It will be replaced by something not-in-person that will be much better. We already are working on this. Not as a conference replacement, but rather as a forced relook at how we can take advantage of the connectivity the Internet provides that we didn’t take advantage of as much as we should to meet the S4 mission.

Like other industries, ICS is seeing a large percentage working from home. Some of the sectors are still staffing the control centers, control rooms and plant floors, albeit at a reduced level. Others actually have Operators doing their job from home. This would have been inconceivable before COVID. Most of the team ‘needed’ to be onsite in case there was a problem.

The kneejerk reaction and prediction is the future will be a lot more remote access because it has proven possible. Perhaps this is true. This would be similar to the never-ending Powerpoint virtual events or radio on television. An approach of copying what was done in one environment and trying to map it directly to another. 

Now is a good time to think about what all the connectivity, storage, computing and services can do beyond just no longer needing to all work in the same physical location. For example, I think it could accelerate the replacement of Operators with machine learning as I wrote in More Engineers, Fewer Operators in ICS Future

What else could change for the better now that we have been knocked off balance and can perhaps see the situation with fewer, if not no, limits?