More information is hidden from plain sight than ever before. When the success of the global economy is hinged on the secure ownership of intellectual property and data, it behooves those who govern the global company to understand how this information is being protected—and how it could be tampered with. To that end, the National Association of Corporate Directors convened directors and cyber risk experts in Geneva, Switzerland, for its first Global Cyber Forum.

Dr. Simon Singh demonstrates the inner workings of an Enigma machine (Credit: Les Studios Casagrande).

Attendees from nearly every continent have made their way to the Hotel President Wilson to discuss the unique challenges of securing data across borders in light of complex and sometimes competing regulations. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which goes into effect in Europe on May 25, 2018, will be a watchword during each session, and not only due to the choice of venue.

The regulation is likely to affect most companies that do business with or employee Europeans, and defines protected data in terms that are stricter than the protections set by most other counties. (Click here to learn more about the implications of GDPR.) Experts from international KPMG offices, cybersecurity firm Rapid7, and AIG joined directors and leading minds in governance from other institutions, from Ridge Global, and from the Internet Security Alliance to discuss their shared challenges and solutions.

The Forum commenced Tuesday evening with a keynote presentation by popular scientist and author Dr. Simon Singh. A particle physicist who completed his degree at Cambridge University while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Singh has committed himself to helping everyday people understand some of the most complex concepts in modern math and science. He is the author of several books and won a BAFTA award for producing “Fermat’s Last Theorem,” a documentary based on the search for the proof of one of the most difficult mathematical theories in history.

Singh’s presentation in Geneva turned directors’ attention to “the history of secrecy,” a topic that he covers in his 1999 book titled The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography (Doubleday). He pointed to the writers of The Simpsons and Futurama first to highlight unexpected points about mathematics and science hidden in plain sight before discussing how susceptible we are to finding patterns that may have no meaning. He described several instances of codes being found in popular texts or songs, including in the rock band Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” played in reverse, which over many years theorists interpreted as sharing an evil message. While at first no one in the audience heard discernible words, after Singh pointed out what should be heard on a slide deck, he noted that almost half of the audience “heard” the words.

He challenged everyone to be more skeptical thereafter, as the human mind is incredibly susceptible to seeing obvious truths. Instead, he encouraged all in the room to be more skeptical scientists who are open to believing anything that can be proven with rigorous evidence.

That’s when the science of cryptography was introduced to the audience. Singh noted that most any message can be found as a pattern most anywhere—including in Moby Dick, where one author found an incredible number of passages pointing out to history that had already coincidentally happened. The human mind, however, has been able over the millennia to form some truly remarkable codes which eluded prying eyes and minds for hundreds of years.

While some of the earliest computing machines such as the Enigma machine present nearly insurmountable odds against being deciphered, Singh reminded the audience that all ciphers are created by humans, and where there are humans, there is bound to be human error. The same human curiosity and propensity to find patterns in behavior has led some lucky code-breakers such as those at Bletchley Park to make history by breaking codes. In the case of Bletchley Park, those code-breakers turned the tide of World War Two.

Directors in the audience were challenged to think of the technologies that could protect their company’s own secrets while also considering the power—and foibles—of human error. Singh brought with him a prized possession: his very own Enigma machine.

When he turned to the audience to see if they had any questions about it after a brief demonstration, one attendee asked how the next frontier of quantum encryption would impact businesses. Singh pointed to the fact that scientists in Geneva were already sending messages encrypted at the quantum level within cities, and that others had sent quantum-secured messages via satellite. He then pointed out that quantum computing itself could make all other encryption obsolete, and that that development could render our understanding of protecting information useless. He also noted that no one knows what governments around the world have already achieved regarding this next frontier in information security.


Coverage of the full day of programming at the Global Cyber Forum is forthcoming in another installment of the blog and in a future issue of NACD Directorship magazine.