Cisco’s Spark Board is pretty cool and (thankfully) heavily encrypted

Cisco Spark Board

Cisco has launched its Spark Board in Singapore, along with an ecosystem of devices, software and an app store, that allows you to reenact your favorite scenes from Minority Report – but, the company assures us, without the big brotherly connotations that comes with it.

Speaking at the Spark Board launch in Singapore, Darryl McKinnon, Cisco’s MD for collaborative sales, APJ, explained how Spark was all about replacing the physical work environment with a virtual one, going up against the likes of Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts/Docs, to name but a few.

McKinnon mentioned that 24% of customers in the region, a market of $3 billion in sales, were looking to upgrade their communications infrastructure within the next six months. Cisco will continue to maintain its WebEx teleconferencing, but going forward the emphasis will be on Spark.

The Spark Board allows the “tossing” of documents to and from it (a la Minority Report). One nifty feature is a set of 12 beam-forming mics that allow the speaker to move around the room and yet allow it to filter out noise in a most effective manner. The wide-angle camera focuses on the speaker. In what he stressed was most definitely not a forward-looking statement, McKinnon noted that there was huge demand for a 100-inch version to complement the 55- and 70-inch ones currently available. For those who do not require the touchscreen functionalities, cheaper TV-top boxes will also be available.

But it was Spark’s app store – called the Spark Depot – that was more impressive.

The Depot has apps ranging from basic things like Google Docs integration (it natively supports only Microsoft Office) to Docusign for document signing, to Salesforce and IBM Watson Integration and retail and healthcare apps. But it is the apps that leverage the smartboard that are the most impressive … and yet scary.

One app can count the number of people in the room for meetings, identify them with facial recognition and automatically create attendance reports. Another app is geared towards public safety – in the event of a fire, the smartboard can scan the room and see if there are still people inside or if there are any bodies collapsed on the ground. Put another way, your TV is watching you – but for your own safety.

Given that Cisco’s sales and share price collapsed in the wake of the 2013 NSA Snowden revelations – and given Wikileaks’ recent CIA spying revelationsDisruptive.Asia asked McKinnon what Cisco is doing to rebuild trust with its customers, especially in greater China where anti-US sentiment and government procurement policies are more pronounced.

McKinnon replied that Cisco now has a transparency report that reports security breaches and incidents (the CIA Vault 7 hacks relied mainly on unpatched, unreported vulnerabilities) and that the Spark platform itself was end-to-end encrypted. Nobody in the middle can see any of the Spark rooms. Every gesture on the Spark board and every keystroke in the Spark room’s search function is encrypted end to end. No intermediaries have access to decryption keys for content unless the enterprise explicitly chooses to grant such access, which would be needed for apps and for compliance.

Interestingly, in a later clarification by email, Cisco said that even the search itself is encrypted:

“Using innovative message indexing, permissions models, authentication flows, encryption, and deployment models, Spark supports features such as global search of content that was never decrypted in the Cisco Spark cloud. Most cloud service providers claim to be secure because they encrypt data in transit between users’ devices and their servers, or between their own data centers. But encryption in transit is not enough to protect data from exposure to the cloud service provider itself. All connections to and from the Spark cloud are encrypted in transit—but we’ve taken Spark beyond, ensuring we only see user content where explicit access is granted.”

The Spark event took place at one of the Impact Hub co-working spaces in Singapore. Listening in on the launch was Denis List, Impact Hub’s Singapore events manager, who said that he was very eager to see if they could work with Cisco to get Spark Boards installed in Impact Hubs across the globe.

Currently there is a lot of mishmash and cross-pollination of ideas in each hub in each city, List said, but the degree of interaction with other hubs on the other side of the world would be greatly enhanced, and entrepreneurs could learn from each other and share ideas much more effectively, with the collaboration tools that come with Spark Board, as opposed to the Skype teleconference rooms that they currently have.

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