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Defcon 17 hacks into Vegas

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Photo: Sarah Feldberg

Hackers are people, too. Really, really, really smart people. Despite the stereotype that they’re a group of secretive, conspiracy theorists out to steal every shred of info and take over the world, This n00b set out for the 17th annual Defcon Convention at the Rivera last weekend.

For the most part, I had no idea what everyone was talking about. But whatever it was, it sure was impressive. The brilliant minds that make you wary to turn on your computer don’t hid out in their grandmas' basements; they come from all walks of life and it seems the majority of them know how to party, as well.

Before the shenanigans ensued, four days of contests and speakers gave the hackers enough ammo to steal your unborn grandchildren’s identities—though they probably won’t. In fact, security specialists were on hand to instruct attendees on how to protect their info and prepare counter attacks to aim at the not-so-friendly computer geeks out there.

However, the consensus from those I chatted with was, for the hackers, it’s more about solving the puzzle of obtaining information than any malicious intent once they have it.

Highlights from topics covered at Defcon—or ones that I could somewhat understand, at least—included BitTorrent hacks, lock picking and “Con Kung-Fu: Defending Yourself at DEFCON.” Anyone who owns an iPhone probably should have considered attending the convention just for “Is your iPhone Pwned? Auditing, Attacking and Defending Mobile Devices,” while all texters should have learned about mobile spam via “Attacking SMS. It's No Longer Your BFF.”

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Further proving all hackers aren’t evil, the “Hacking the Wiimote and Wii Fit to Help the Disabled” was ingenious, as was having a session on learning about your tossing and turning issues via “Hacking Sleep: How to Build Your Very Own Sleep Lab.”

Hackers also have a deliciously dry sense of humor, as exemplified in discussions such as “Social Zombies: Your Friends Want to Eat Your Brains” about malware in social networking sites, "‘Smart’ Parking Meter Implementations, Globalism, and You (aka Meter Maids Eat Their Young),” and even Mythbusters’ Adam Savage gave a talk entitled “Failure” about how he’s screwed up many things along the way to primetime success.

“Spot the Fed” was a popular convention-long game in which participants did just that. Referred to in the Defcon literature as a “paranoid version of pin the tail on the donkey,” attendees are on the look out for agents because, of course, they’re lurking under cover with a bunch of computer geniuses around. I may have also been seen as a threat to the hacker community as press (Thanks NBC and Dateline for trying to go undercover at Defcon 15), because I was strictly prohibited from taking photos or video, hence the nakedness of this blog. (I don’t blame them. That might only help the feds track down people with facial recognition software for no good reason other than that they were in attendance and might, might be up to something. Wow, paranoia must be contagious.)

“Personal Survival Preparedness” and “De Gustibus, or Hacking your Tastebuds” covered ground beyond the computer screen, and for more activities not chained to the keyboard, Defcon had a chill-out area that our nightclubs could take a cue from, complete with subdued lighting, airy décor and down tempo music for those needing a break from dancing—er—hacking all night.

There were also pool parties a plenty at Defcon, back-to-back Black and White Balls complete with DJs and themed attire and plenty of people hitting up the Rivera’s skyboxes for a variety of other parties. My favorite fete – and likely the most welcoming – would probably be Queercon. After all, gay hackers like to party, too, and look more fabulous doing so. (Queercon was actually the reason I even learned about Defcon last year, after friends heard about the underground dance party and we crashed it).

Thanks to my new buddy “Virus,” I also got to check out the invite-only Ninja Party at the Artisan on Saturday night. It was probably the most packed I’ve ever seen the boutique hotel’s tiny bar, but I was told upon receiving my press badge that hackers love the free booze and that certainly seemed to be the case.

We have no idea of this badge's capabilities...

Speaking of badges, the Defcon ones kicked ass. Straight outta Star Trek, Joe “Kingpin” Grand’s custom-engineered badge had a functioning microphone, a sound sensitive LED and an advanced digital signal processing microprocessor. In layman’s terms, the louder you talk, the more the lil’ light brightens. If the badges could be hacked to do something cool, I’ll never know, though I did learn that all the different types of badges could be put together like a puzzle to sync up a coordinated light sequence. (There are probably more technical terms for all of this, but your guess is as good as mine). I was told last year’s badge could be hacked and used as a TV-B-Gone. No word yet as to the capabilities of this year’s neckpiece.

So, if your computer started doing something funny last weekend, it may have been those Defcon Einsteins in town. And after my first year attending I have a few hacker aspirations myself. Next year, it’s on like Donkey Kong and I plan on learning as much as possible. Your mp3 collection better watch out.

UPDATE, 08/04/09, 23:10: See the video below for more about that impressive badge.

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