Company Sues Blackhat Because People Mocked Their Sponsored Presentation And Called It Snake Oil

from the good-luck-there dept

Sean Gallagher, over at Ars Technica, has a story about yet another bizarre lawsuit. A company called Crown Sterling, which claims it's disrupting the entire encryption business, is suing the Black Hat conference organizers after it paid $115,000 to be a "gold sponsor," only to find their presentation widely mocked. You can read the complaint here. It's quite something.

Gallagher's article does a nice job summing up the presentation and the background in a single paragraph:

Grant's presentation, entitled "Discovery of Quasi-Prime Numbers: What Does this Mean for Encryption," was based on a paper called "Accurate and Infinite Prime Prediction from a Novel Quasi-PrimeAnalytical Methodology." That work was published in March of 2019 through Cornell University's arXiv.org by Grant's co-author Talal Ghannam—a physicist who has self-published a book called The Mystery of Numbers: Revealed through their Digital Root as well as a comic book called The Chronicles of Maroof the Knight: The Byzantine. The paper, a slim five pages, focuses on the use of digital root analysis (a type of calculation that has been used in occult numerology) to rapidly identify prime numbers and a sort of multiplication table for factoring primes.

Even from that description, you might be rolling your eyes. There's also a response paper from Mark Carney from the University of Leeds who basically debunks many of the claims in Grant's paper. The summary is pretty straightforward:

A recent publication by Grant et al. [2] has revealed some innovations with respect to the checking and generation of prime numbers with which to crack cryptographic keys. We argue that their method is minimal, and go on to prove some general cases of the mathematics they present - specifically refuting two of their claims. We also present more computationally efficient methods, and use these as a spring board to refute the existence of any practical efficiency improvements coming from this methodology.

Some, of course, were a bit less academic in their criticism, speaking out against the presentation on Twitter and heckling Grant during the presentation itself. PC Mag published an article quoting a cryptography expert who said it had "all the signs of 'snake oil' crypto." That's from Jean-Phillippe Aumasson. He also noted:

"The content of the paper and the so-called discoveries are either 1) obvious, well-known mathematical properties that any high school student would easily find, or 2) plain wrong."

Aumasson also had quite the Twitter thread going during the talk.

Either way, all of this resulted in Crown Sterling suing Black Hat. According to the lawsuit, part of paying Black Hat $115,000 to get a "sponsored talk" slot also meant people aren't supposed to criticize them:

In the face of all of this, Black Hat USA, as the Black Hat conference organizer and party with whom Crown Sterling entered the Sponsorship Agreement, had an obligation both to conference attendees and to Crown Sterling to ensure that Crown Sterling, as a participant and a sponsor, was treated only with respect and dignity. Black Hat USA also had an obligation to provide Crown Sterling the benefit of its bargain, which was to be able to use its exhibitor booth and its sponsored session as means to invite fair, open, considerate and non-abusive dialog regarding its technology breakthrough, and to attract prospective clients, collaborators and business partners.

Good luck with that theory.

There may be a slightly stronger argument that Black Hat then did breach its contract by removing any mention of Crown Sterling from its website and then refusing to return the sponsorship money. That... gets a bit more iffy. There is some issue here in that Black Hat probably should review its sponsors a bit more carefully. And, if it's going to recognize that it was had and pull a sponsor's name off the website, it does seem like perhaps they should have given some money back. But, the flip side to that is that, until Black Hat realized what was going on, Crown Sterling appeared to get what it paid for -- a booth, promotion, and a speaking slot. It's only after all of that when Black Hat removed their name from the site.

Crown Sterling never could have anticipated what happened instead: Black Hat USA itself, rather than enforcing its own Black Hat protocol and Code of Conduct, and rather than renouncing the abusive conduct and demanding civility and decorum, instead made good on that detractor’s threat to “take Crown Sterling down” by publicly stating that it had taken down Crown Sterling’s presentation materials from its event website. In fact, this statement was false. Black Hat USA had never posted the Crown Sterling materials on its website, and presumably did not know its contents when it subsequently purported to have screened them after the fact, and based on this screening which never occurred, taken them down. What Black Hat USA did do, however, is take down any mention of Crown Sterling’s participation in the event from its website, essentially disavowing their presence and vitiating the very essence of the Sponsorship Agreement.

But... even that seems weak. As does arguing that Black Hat telling the press about this decision is somehow defamatory. That ain't how defamation works, guys.

Black Hat also sided with the detractors in the most public of ways, providing a statement for the very PC Magazine article that served as a mouthpiece for those conference detractors. In its statement, Black Hat USA confirmed that it would take down Crown Sterling’s content from its website, and it disavowed Crown Sterling as a sponsor. By doing so, Black Hat USA unfairly and inappropriately placed its imprimatur on the abusive sponsored session disruption and the defamatory smear campaign that followed shortly thereafter.

Notably, the lawsuit itself is not for defamation -- just breach of contract and breach of "implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing." It seems likely that this lawsuit is a long shot for a variety of reasons. But, it also isn't going to do much to improve Crown Sterling's reputation among cryptographers.

Filed Under: breach of contract, encryption, prime numbers, robert grant
Companies: black hat, crown sterling


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2019 @ 10:54am

    What on earth did they think would happen? The company name is essentially trashed in the industry now. That has nothing to do with Black Hat and everything to do with Crown Sterling's presentation and published data.

    So... Black Hat should have vetted the sponsor better, and should have a policy set up for when a sponsor is found to be peddling snake oil. Beyond that, there's not much here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Matthew Cline (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:05am

    Crown Sterling's answer to this potential crisis in encryption, called TIME AI, is something the company calls "five-dimensional" encryption, "the world's first 'non-factor' based quantum AI encryption" based on polygons, AI-composed music, Fibonacci's sequence, and various other things.

    Even if they'd figured out how to break RSA encryption and their brand new encryption method worked, why would anyone go with their new encryption method when Elliptic-curve cryptography is already available?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2019 @ 12:22pm

      Re:

      Even if they'd figured out how to break RSA encryption

      If they'd done that, it would be easy for them to prove it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Aug 2019 @ 1:51am

      Because ECC is vulnerable to quantum attack.

      Nobody has yet built a quantum computer sufficiently large to do this, but it is assumed by many that this will come.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:15am

    So, instead of actually demonstrating that their mathematics works by decrypting same samples, they launch a law suite. That is a sure sign of snake oil selling.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Gary (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:20am

    Is it Defamation?

    Wow, seems like we need a good breakdown article similar to Ken Pope's "Is it Rico" that we can keep pointing at.

    Perfect example of how tin foil hats try to "disrupt" science - it isn't their methodology to blame, it's the bad press preventing them from explaining why the Earth is flat.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:27am

    Strange.

    So you bring a Product out to be seen and maybe purchased..
    In front of all these people Who seem to be Professionals.
    And they deride and abuse you of this idea/concept..

    You paid to be represented? Or you paid for a booth to show off your new toy? Did any other group have anything to say? Because this seems to only point to the group that gave you the booth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Agammamon, 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:27am

    I already think they're a group of crazies just for the lawsuit.

    The excerpts from the filing posted here confirm that. Torturous sentences, contradicting themselves from one sentence to the next - all the hallmark of crazy litigants who actually believe in what they're peddling. Its sad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:37am

    Just what did BlackHat sell for $115,000.00?

    What do you mean we can't buy respect and dignity?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2019 @ 1:25pm

      Re: Just what did BlackHat sell for $115,000.00?

      Ad space, basically. If you look at it from that context without all the rancor, smoke and mirrors that's going on from the Crown Sterling, this is really just another breach of contract lawsuit. Without being privy to the contract terms, we're mostly speculating on any merits of the lawsuit. At this point it's the lawyers throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. This isn't actually about defamation, at least not in what's before the court. Crown Sterling decided to attempt to try this in the court of public opinion and it pretty much backfired. Now their name is mud and you'll probably see a corporate shell game happen regardless of the lawsuit outcome: name change, a 'pivot' in a 'new direction', and some PR chaff to defeat any remaining missiles.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:53am

    Crown Sterling

    Jim Sterling should sue them for defamation by association~.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    radix (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 11:58am

    Going to argue in court that their attempted bribe didn't work....bold strategy, Cotton.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bob, 26 Aug 2019 @ 12:13pm

    did they think only stupid people attend blackhat

    If you are going to try and peddle something, why would you try to fool the professionals first. Real professionals are very serious about what they do and are going to vet the crap out of whatever you present.

    Their response to whatever you are peddling is going to be proportional to the level of stuff you say. If you say crap they will mock you like the turd you are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2019 @ 1:38pm

      Re: did they think only stupid people attend blackhat

      "Real" professionals are subject to con jobs all the time. Just that in the field of deep learning, it's usually the "professionals" that are the con artists with everyone else being the dupe. Crown Sterling's mistake is that they presented this to people that would see through the marketing hype soon as it was out their mouths. The audience had enough honest folk with the right knowledge under their belt to see it as just another very thinly skinned AI buzzed con job. But just because they're professionals doesn't mean they can't be conned. Just means you have to work harder at conning them on their own turf.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mononymous Tim (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 12:24pm

    $115,000

    Money stupidly spent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    norahc (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 12:46pm

    There are just some internet hornet's nests you really shouldn't stick your dick into just to annoy them.

    Reddit, both Chans, and any Hat conference top the list.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Aug 2019 @ 1:16pm

      Re:

      Don't tug on Superman's cape.

      Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

      And never, ever try to use sleight of hand against a roomful of card experts in black hats.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Toom1275 (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 9:58pm

        Re: Re:

        Though the latter is basically the premise of Penn & Teller's Fool Us.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 27 Aug 2019 @ 8:31am

          Re: Re: Re:

          The difference being that no one is so arrogant as to think that P&T won't spot that it's all illusion, misdirection, and sleight-of-hand; best-case scenario is that they won't spot exactly what illusion, misdirection and sleight-of-hand you're using.

          Crown Sterling's presentation is more like trying to use a stage magician's tricks to convince James Randi to award you the prize for the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 12:46pm

    'Now, to ensure you fight to the legal death...'

    In the face of all of this, Black Hat USA, as the Black Hat conference organizer and party with whom Crown Sterling entered the Sponsorship Agreement, had an obligation both to conference attendees and to Crown Sterling to ensure that Crown Sterling, as a participant and a sponsor, was treated only with respect and dignity.

    Yeah, even if their interpretation of that was correct(and I don't believe for one second that it is), that by being a sponsor Black Hat was supposed to ensure that no-one talked bad about them, they'd have pretty much ensured that Black Hat would fight that claim into bankruptcy, since caving on that point would utterly destroy the event's credibility by making clear that 'respect' could be bought.

    Were Black Hat to agree that being a sponsor shielded a person/company from criticism then they'd have turned their event into nothing more than PR show, useless except for companies to brag with 'credibility' tied not to the strength of the claims/discoveries/arguments but whoever had the biggest wallet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Thad (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 1:14pm

    Definitely something you do when you're confident in your product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 26 Aug 2019 @ 5:38pm

    Streisand

    Paging Streisand, paging Barbara Streisand...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Aug 2019 @ 7:28pm

    Oh no... they forgot to energize their lawsuit but resting it above their energy crystals...

    (Look at where the money comes from... magic crystals that can energize water... but don't get them wet)

    We here at Crown Sterling wanted to make sure the world knew our name, little did we know suing a hacker convention might offend some hackers. Our servers are on fire, all of our emails have been published (including the ones where we mocked you idiots buying our magic crystals)...
    We think this will be a win for us as we meditate with our crystals.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 1 Sep 2019 @ 11:45pm

    They Probably Have it Right

    Not a lawsuit for defamation, that is a good sign right there. The atty recognizes that there is no untruthful statement by the defendant for which damages can be shown.

    I would certainly expect that an action for breach of contract would lie. Without verifying all the facts, it would appear that (a) Black Hat offered a ``gold sponsor'' package including web site and other promotions (b) Crown Sterling paid for such a package (c) Black Hat failed to provide at least part of the normal package (d) Black Hat refused to return any money.

    The lawyers, in their first draft, may have gotten a little silly by looking for civility and respect. However, under the silliness, it does appear that there is a claim for breach of contract.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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