Fortune spoke to Mark McLaughlin, CEO, chairman, and president of cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks (PANW), ahead of his keynote at this year’s RSA Conference, the world’s biggest cybersecurity confab. He chatted on a phone call from his hotel room in San Francisco.
The core of McLaughlin’s message, as he told Fortune on Monday, is the massive productivity gains promised in the digital age rest on a precarious foundation: Trust. For him, losing that trust is not an option. “People get very focused on ‘cyber Pearl Harbor’ events,” McLaughlin said, referring to the electronic doomsday scenarios often invoked by members of the national security set. “As bad, and more subtle, would be an increasing lack of trust in networks.”
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McLaughlin said he believes it would not take a cataclysmic meltdown to convince people that today’s connected computers are too unreliable and uncertain to be worth the effort. Just as easily slight problems could build up, forming one giant undeniable reason to steer clear of these networks. “It’s certainly possible to lose that trust even short of a catastrophic digital event,” he said. “What’s more concerning is the perception that the system doesn’t work the way we think its supposed to work.”
What if a hacker manipulated your bank account information, he asked. “That could take online banking down due to the perception it created.” And that’s to say nothing of the multitude of complications that could spark public mistrust in airlines or the critical infrastructure of basic utilities relying on computer networks.
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McLaughlin has three guidelines for how this problem should be tackled. First, automated protection: Cybersecurity professionals need to develop systems that take care of threats automatically. Second, threat intelligence sharing: Companies need to swap information about the attacks they face. (Palo Alto Networks is part of a consortium of cybersecurity firms—the Cyber Threat Alliance—that has teamed up to do so; read more about it in Fortune’s exclusive keynote preview with Intel (INTC) Security lead Chris Young, who called for greater industry collaboration.) And third, education: “The government needs to teach its citizens, parents need to teach their children, and employers needs to teach their employees about hygiene in the digital age,” he said.
Along the lines of bettering cybersecurity instruction, McLaughlin mentioned that his wife and son happened to be visiting a cryptography exhibit that day at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, which Palo Alto Networks helped create. (His son’s favorite part is a large representation of key tumblers that shows how physical locks work, he said.)
“We’re very excited—as society should be—about massive productivity gains that occur with the digital age,” McLaughlin said, delivering good news before bad. “But it’s not a slam dunk.”
“If we don’t figure out the security side of this—if people were to lose trust in the underlying infrastructure we all increasingly rely upon,” he added, “that would be a substantial step backward, and would have a potentially enormous impact.”
Get to know Mark McLaughlin through a quick Fortune Q&A:
How many RSA Conferences have you attended?
Lost count but more than 15.
What is your favorite part of RSA Conference, and why?
Talking with customers. They help ground you and those conversations ensure I’m not getting caught up in all the marketing speak.
Which talk or event this year are you most excited for?
I’m on a panel later this week with James Shira from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who is one of the most dynamic guys in this industry. Can’t wait to hear what he has to say.
Drink of choice at one of the many open bars?
Coffee, and lots of it.