Around this time every year thousands of hackers convene in Las Vegas, Nevada to socialize, share and play. DEF CON is a mecca for amateurs and experts with a passion for technology, focusing on security, development and freedom. As a self-proclaimed computer nerd and anarchist, it’s been a dream of mine to attend DEF CON since its inception. I was twelve years old and remember reading about it in a local rag called “NCCN: Northern California Computing News.” Just the phrase “Hacker convention in Vegas” gets my heart racing and palms sweating.
It was about ten months ago that I found “Hackers Are People Too,” an independent documentary about the hacker culture filmed at DEF CON 16. I immediately sent the link to Seth and sparked a new, unyielding drive to attend the next convention. Well, DEF CON 19 is here and, in previous months, Seth went behind my back and procured a single press pass in my name under the condition that I report back to Daily Anarchist. So, I’m in Las Vegas and participating in the culture that’s at the center of the Cyber War and the subject of a brightening media spotlight.
The convention’s location has changed several times over the years. This year it was held at the Rio and hosted activities including contests, drinking games, workshops, pool parties and tons of speakers. Presently, there are around one hundred ninety scheduled in the four-day span. There’s a full list of speakers and topics posted and a quick peruse will shine some light on why Daily Anarchist is interested in this specific convention. It’s been brought up repeatedly that, for whatever reason, there are a lot of tech-minded anarchists present at DEF CON. The EFF, the Feds and the hacktivists are all here en-masse.
The crowd at DEF CON 19 resembles that of a music festival with less dirt and, interestingly, more mohawks thanks to the efforts of EFF and Hackers for Charity. The scene is dense with diversity, kindness and baffling levels of intellegence ranging from security expertise to programming and “black hat” strategies for acquiring information via various technologies. The introduction by Dark Tangent, the convention organizers, was a strange briefing to the three days to follow: full of berating, name-calling and jokes designed to influence the basement techies to wear deoderant and shower before attending.
A quick show of hands puts the new-comers on blast, an impressive number of people, displaying the increasing popularity of cyber security and the hacker culture. In meeting people on the convention floor I’ve found that some attend specifically for the speakers; it being a rare chance to explore the minds and worlds of experts in security, programming, freedom of anonymity and legal issues created by the state and enforced by the tech companies. That’s really just the surface of the convention, though. There’s an overwhelming amount of activities to partake in and the schedule density makes for a lot of running around, catching what you can and participating where you’re comfortable.
The over-all theme is one of awareness. My expectations of learning hands-on attack and defense strategies has gone, so-far, unfulfilled. Although, that may be my own fault. As an intimidated DEF CON first-timer obviously ignorant regarding the vast subject matter, learning directly from convention goers is the most enlightening aspect of the convention on the whole.
Vendors at DEF CON are not your usual corporate dealers but rather former convention goers who have developed products of interests for security and tech enthusiasts. Lock-pick kits, high-security locks and all sorts of electronics are widely available. The EFF presented several booths offering information, stickers and garb focusing on their efforts. And the typical t-shirt and hat souvenirs are definitely represented as well as books on security, hacking and programming topics.
As someone who grew up engrossed in computers I feel like a newb for the first time in a long time. Being surrounded by like-minded people is a sure draw for everyone and commonly referenced as the main point of attendance. The crowd itself has had a compelling effect on me, personally. I find myself amazed at the openness and kindness. Def Con being my first convention of this kind, the illumination of a culture that I naively considered myself a member of is encouraging and motivates me to be more directly involved in forums and future gatherings. There’s an amazing amount of information about encryption and security technologies and their respective vulnerabilities that shines light on the need for awareness at the user level, primarily, which is made accessible for newbs and experts alike.