Saturday, August 14, 2010

NATGEO: The Hackers Life – My Weekend at Defcon

Via NATGEO's Assignment Blog -

I’m walking with Nico through the hallways of the convention area of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. There is a distinct old school feeling at the Riviera that reminds one of the days when Las Vegas was run by the family. Walking swiftly Nico tells me that we might see security expert Chris Paget get arrested during his presentation.


As we get closer to the hall where Paget is presenting, I can hear someone yelling, “if you have a GSM cell phone, your call may be intercepted. If you do not want this to happen, then turn off your cell phone.” The vociferous warning is supported by the flyers I see haphazardly taped to the walls.


This is an example of what happens every year at the DefCon hacker conference in Las Vegas. Passionate hackers present their knowledge and capabilities, often times skirting the very fringes of legality. However, if you think that this is a convention for geek criminals, then you’ve been watching too much NBC.

Have you ever locked yourself out of your home and had to try to break in? There is sense of accomplishment in succeeding. Then there’s the slightly disturbing revelation that if you can break into your place as an amateur, a professional could do five times faster – so you look at your exploit and fix the breach. DefCon is like that.


Walking around the halls are people in dark clothes, ripped jeans and mohawks talking to people in golf shirts and khakis. Its is a welcome antidote from the Hollywood environ where I live. Social status here is based on knowledge and accomplishment and not on clothing labels or car marques.

That is not to say you shouldn’t watch your back here. There are unwritten rules like; don’t ask anyone where they work, and don’t use any ATMs within a two block radius of the Riviera hotel. There are government agents here, as well as white collar criminals. If you are press, you are asked to be obvious in displaying your credential, and to ask permission before shooting pictures of anyone.


If you’re one who dismisses the DefCon attendees as group of misfits and social pariahs then you probably have the same password for ninety percent of your online existence. Which means you are doomed. Because as clever as you think you’re being by using your dog’s birthday backwards as a secure key, you’re no match for the people that I’ve met. There is no more greater ignorance online than that of an average internet user who believes what the mainstream media says about hackers and internet security.


You may argue that these hackers have a proclivity to criminal behavior which is why they do what they do. I’ll tell you are wrong. Yes there are criminal intentions to be found at DefCon, but so are there to be found in your office. Every niche of society has a dark element. But that’s not the majority of what you see in society, or here at DefCon. The sense of community and public education is overwhelming, as is the need to share, albeit anonymously, successful hacks that reveal weaknesses in the various security infrastructures that affect all of our lives.

Recently in the news there have been a number of stories telling of various governments, including our own, that are lobbying to try and get more access to the data of our personal online habits. This is an unconscionable thought to me and to probably many of you reading this. Sadly we have very few tools to protest such agendas should they be advanced. But I know a group of people who are passionate about online freedom and have the means to make a stand against insurgencies into your private online life. Many of them can be found at DefCon.

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