Industry Perspectives

RSA Steps Out as the World’s Largest Security Startup

Sep 01, 2020 | by Paul Roberts |
An individual steps away from a lineup of people

A lot has changed since RSA Security's founding 38 years ago, in 1982. First and foremost: technology. As the company's Chief Digital Officer, Dr. Zulfikar Ramzan, reminded me in a recent interview: the company's three, eponymous founders, Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Len Adelman ("R," "S," and "A"), didn't even have hardware capable of running the encryption algorithm they developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The three had to create and then fabricate their own custom chip just to implement the RSA algorithm correctly. Today, Ramzan notes, anybody's iPhone can run the algorithm in a "split second" with no problem.

For three academics looking to found a company around their novel encryption technology, there were other impediments as well: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, "cryptography was classified in the same way arms were," Ramzan told me. "There were real questions about whether you would be able to export encryption technology from the U.S."

In spite of those challenges - or maybe because of them - Rivest, Shamir and Adelman persevered. In the process, they and their company helped birth the modern Internet: electronic commerce, online banking and trusted data exchanges of all sorts. "Look at what their technology enabled," Ramzan said. "What 'R', 'S' and 'A' did with their algorithm was enable trust on the Internet ... they ushered in a new age," Ramzan said.

Stepping out in a pandemic

That spirit is very much in the air at RSA these days, as the organization re-emerges as an independent company for the first time in 14 years. It will transform RSA from the security products and services division of Dell Technologies into what Ramzan calls possibly the "world's largest security startup," with 2,000 employees around the globe and a $2.1 billion valuation.

The timing is, well, "interesting:" the world is in the grips of a once-in-a-century pandemic; economies around the globe mired in deep, pandemic-induced recessions. But what might seem like a challenge in one light is an opportunity when looked at differently, Ramzan said. First, because COVID 19 has pushed companies to embrace digital transformation in a way that was unimaginable even eight months ago.

"It's hard to believe this began in February and March. We've seen the world transform," Ramzan said. "COVID the single biggest accelerant of digital transformation we've seen."

That plays to RSA's strengths. As companies restructure IT operations to compete in a marketplace dominated by COVID and its many restrictions, the RSA portfolio of secure identity, threat detection and response, fraud prevention and risk management technologies are in demand more than ever.

In just one example, the shift from an in-office workforce to a near-universal remote workforce has scrambled enterprise security paradigms. It has also spurred demand for technology from RSA, as firms look to secure a vastly expanded perimeter and get their arms around a transformed threat landscape. "We've seen the stakes go up tremendously," Ramzan said, noting that in the early days of COVID, RSA was called on to help customers move thousands of employees to remote work in a matter of hours or days.

Focus on Security, Risk and Fraud

Not that RSA intends to rest on its laurels. The company realized early on that simply owning the copyright on the world's most powerful encryption algorithm wasn't going to be enough - especially with a patent that was set to expire in the late 1990s.

Diversification has always been a key to RSA's success, as it expanded from encryption to secure identity and then to fraud, risk management and compliance. "You can't ride one technology for 40 years and expect to be a leader in industry," Ramzan said. "To build an iconic organization you have to constantly disrupt yourself and ride different waves of market discontinuity."

In the months ahead, RSA will be doing just that, while relishing the agility that comes with independence. "We intend to be innovative in key areas where we can be nimble and more responsive to our customers," Ramzan said.

"The hallmark of the new RSA will be innovation in key areas," Ramzan said. "We're going to find new problems to solve and be relentless in providing value for customers," he said.

That means doubling down on its existing portfolio with a focus on security, fraud and risk. "We're interested in the technologies like extended detection and response - identity should be a part of that. Or, the idea of bringing identity aware data into (the security operations center)."

Within its fraud and risk management portfolio, RSA will be looking to help companies cope with an ever-expanding fraud landscape, especially as COVID forces corporate and personal identities to merge. "We're focused on omnichannel fraud," Ramzan said. "It's not just online or on your bank's website. Fraud could come by phone or target your ATM," he said.

A Reliable Partner in Challenging Times

COVID hasn't just shown us that our society is more brittle than we imagined. The proliferation of attacks that accompanied the virus's spread has shown us that our digital world is also vulnerable, Ramzan said.

With so much uncertainty, the bet is that companies will be attracted to an established brand and a stable partner. "Partners are more critical when times get tough," Ramzan said. "In the post-COVID era, when you think about vendors it's going to be 'who do you want by your side?"

The bet is that the answer to that question in the future, as in the past, will be RSA.

This post was sponsored by RSA, but the opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent RSA's positions or strategies.

Paul Roberts is the editor-in-chief of The Security Ledger. Follow him at @paulfroberts or @securityledger.