I feel very punk. While covering the 16th annual Defcon hackers’ convention in Las Vegas this past weekend for G4, I was escorted out of the premises. After shooting the intro to the piece, it was noted that the shot contained tiny, tiny people way off in the background and this ultimately violated their press rules. Even though no one in the frame was identifiable, it was still a no-no. Certainly not intentional on our part, but at that point it was too late…a couple of attendees complained and turned in photos of the infraction, and our badges were summarily revoked. The real bummer part was that I was mid conversation with Dan Kaminsky about how he came to discover the flaw in THE ENTIRE INTERNET when they whisked him away and showed us the door.
Now, I want to be clear about this: I bear no ill will toward Defcon. It was a fascinating gathering of some of the most creative minds in the world coming together to share ideas. For the most part, hackers are public servants who reveal fatal holes in our digital underverse for the purposes of protecting us from those who might have less than honorable intentions. The show floor was loaded with amazing stuff: a “Wall of Sheep,” which listed the email and IP of anyone foolish enough to use the convention’s unsecured Wi-Fi, lockpicking contests (analog hacking), a computery “capture the flag,” and even a contest with a $5000 prize for whomever could sit through 30 hours of software presentations. Also, I was lucky enough to have a nice chat with Zack Anderson, one of the MIT students who tipped the world off to a security hole in the Boston public transportation payment system. A day before he was supposed to speak about the discovery, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority obtained a court order which prevented him from talking about it.
Hackers are a really cool bunch. SUPER smart, but generally very personable and excited about their work. The drawback to hacking is the accompanying paranoia. Their trade has taught them not to trust anyone, particularly the press. Last year an undercover Dateline reporter was outed for trying to create some retardo exposé on the event. She was humiliated and that was hilarious. Unfortunately for us, the organizers failed to see that G4 was 100% on their side and our goal was only to celebrate the event and praise their work. As careful was we tried to be about what and where we shot (it was tough with all the restrictions), our efforts weren’t good enough. Ironically, we assumed the role that hackers are so often forced to take—being punished for trying to help. As we were led by security into an empty conference room, their tone was calm yet scolding. Security guards flanked the the door while they reviewed our footage, and then it was over.
All in all, it was a terrific event and I laud the organizers and the attendees. If you ever hear someone talk about “the real deal” computer brainiacs, they’re referring to these guys. The tricky part for Defcons of the future is going to be trying to strike that balance between having a public event where everyone wants to be anonymous and having press coverage. My suggestion would be don’t have press coverage.
One of the coolest elements of Defcon 16 hung around your neck—Make Magazine author and engineer “Kingpin” designed the electronic badges which could send and receive information through in IR receiver and store it in an SD card, giving other attendees the ability to hack your badge. With no card installed, the badge works as a TV-B-Gone. This was a very difficult badge to have taken away…
Images: Defcon, Chris Hardwick/Nerdist