The Dorks of DefCon
Jason and I went to Las Vegas last weekend to geek it up at DefCon. For those of you who aren’t nerdy enough to understand the significance of DefCon, let me enlighten you. DefCon is the largest hackers’ convention in the world. It takes place every summer in Las Vegas. Now I know what all of you are thinking because it’s exactly the same thing I was thinking when I first heard of DefCon. “Really? There’s a convention for hackers? To teach them how to hack better? Really? Is that legal?” The answer to all of those questions is yes.
Yes, every summer over seven thousand of the nerdiest people you’ll ever meet converge on Vegas in 111 degree weather to learn how to improve their computer hacking and lock picking skills. Yes, really. The conference isn’t attended by just hacking bad guys or “black hats” though; geeks like Jason go to keep up on hacking trends in order to maintain their status as network security superstars.
Despite the caliber of geeks this conference attracts, not all DefCon goers look noticeably nerdy. There are plenty of guys there that look completely ordinary. But, there are also a considerable number that do not. These not-so-normal attendees I like to call “feral geeks”. These are the guys with long greasy hair that pick their noses unabashedly and look like they’re wearing twenty-year-old leftovers from high school that probably weren’t even fashionable back then. These are the guys that probably still live in their mamma’s basement and consider showering optional.
Though those of the female persuasion are usually highly outnumbered at DefCon, I decided to brave it and be among them. I know this acknowledgement will expose me as the geek I am, but admittedly I did not just attend this conference to humor my husband. I also went because I am a curious person. I like to know how everything works and am eager to learn, even geeky hacking knowledge falls under my umbrella of curiosity. I actually enjoyed most of the presentations I listened to – I know, I know, that makes me an even bigger nerd. I happily learned about computer crime law, malware mess-ups, and cyber warfare. Surprisingly, only one presenter baffled me with his technical details, the others I didn’t have any difficulties understanding. Yes, yes… I am a geek.
While DefCon isn’t much different from other scientific seminars in many ways, there are a few things about it that are a bit on the peculiar side. For one, the presenters can often be seen guzzling bottles of beer during their lectures, instead of water. And anytime they spout profanities, which happens frequently, the crowd inevitably cheers.
Beyond just the idiosyncrasies of the presentations, the atmosphere at DefCon is unusual. There’s a lock picking village where you can improve your ability to break and enter. Doesn’t seem legal does it? But strangely it is. Intelligent attendees absolutely avoid getting on the internet while at DefCon. Any laptop or phone linked into the DefCon network is hacked nearly instantaneously. Conference fees can only be paid for in cash; credit cards are not accepted. The organizers of this convention understand that if they allowed attendees to pay with credit cards, many of them would be fraudulent and all the card numbers, legit or otherwise, would probably be stolen from their system anyway, via hacking of course.
Another DefCon oddity is the presence of the feds. Agents from just about every federal organization come to DefCon. They come in part to spy and in part to recruit. They’ve realized that although some of these hackers use questionable means, many of them are exceptionally talented. The feds try to blend in at DefCon, go unnoticed for the most part. But it is not unusual to hear accusing shouts of “Fed, fed!” radiating randomly from an attendee if they believe they have spotted an agent.
Although DefCon is immensely entertaining, Jason and I didn’t just geek it while in Vegas. We took some time to watch a Cirque du Soleil show, Mystére; it was beautifully done. We also squeezed in a little shopping and a bit of gambling. After all, Vegas is just a hot desert dustbin without those slots.
My DefCon analysis? Hot, foul, nerdy, interesting, peculiar, amusing. DefCon is an absolutely unique and bizarre experience. I definitely recommend that all you coding monkeys check it out.