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DefCon: The good, the bad and ‘the Feds’

defconAh, DefCon, my favorite convention.   I should have gone this year.   It’s a celebration of determination, independence, intellectual accomplishment, and constant learning.

My brother and I went to DefCon in 1999.   I managed to talk my way into the Press Room and got full press credentials with access to special areas   —   I’d hacked the hacker’s conference.   I did have to wait 20 minutes for my brother to get through the regular line though.   I later sold my DefCon press credentials on eBay for $14.   Shoulda kept them.

I’d been running Linux on one of my computers for two years by then, but for the first time had people I could actually talk to in person about it, in-depth.

One of the great presentations everyone looked forward to was by the “Cult of the Dead Cow” announcing their new release of “Back Orifice 2000“, a back door for Windows, although it was a little disappointing.   It was a raucous rap-based performance back-and-forth, with the technical details left for the audience to flesh out for themselves.

On the convention floor I recognized and introduced myself to Bruce Schneier, a mathematician and one of the world’s highest-regarded crypto and security experts.   We talked briefly, but I quickly bored him and he took his leave, lol.

At one of the presentations I sat next to a rumpled guy, and I noticed that he had an earbud with wire (this was before Apple’s music devices), and he was constantly fiddling with a rather large device in his pocket, and uh, an antenna sticking out of his backpack.   I asked him about it, and it was a broadband frequency scanner!   He was listening in on event security, police channels, walkie-talkies, and all sorts of other stuff, but then he wouldn’t talk to me anymore…

The Capture The Flag contest was also interesting.   That year they had ten long tables arranged in a circle, with people working on their laptops around it.   The idea was to find a way into the best highly-secured server the conference could set up, and make it through several layers of defenses and intrusion detection programs, to download a text file with a special string in it.   You’ve captured the flag.   Few people ever do, and I should note that you are not only trying to crack that server, but at the same time trying to protect and defend yourself from the other players attacking you!   I may be qualified today to crack the server then, but I’m probably not much threat to their security today, although I can definitely set up very effective protections.

Since the beginning, DefCon has known it was infiltrated by federal agents, looking to gather information.   So the second year it was held, they started a game called “Spot The Fed”.   If you could spot an actual federal or other law enforcement agent in the crowd and publicly out them (they usually didn’t deny it), you were awarded a highly-prized T-shirt emblazoned with DefCon regalia and “I Spotted The Fed” across the back, and the Fed got a T-shirt that said “I Am The Fed.”
Like a paranoid version of pin the tail on the donkey, the favorite sport at this gathering of computer hackers and phone phreaks seems to be hunting down real and imagined telephone security and Federal and local law enforcement authorities who the attendees are certain are tracking their every move…   Of course, they may be right.
— John Markhoff,   NYT

At one point conference organizers invited Feds to bring coffee mugs, hats, etc, with the shields or initials of their respective organizations, and in exchange they’d get an “I Am The Fed” T-shirt.   I hear that not many took them up on that.

tshirt1tshirt2In retrospect I think a woman who took a good bit of technical interest in me in the hall, was probably one.   We were chatting, when I accidentally called it ‘Liynix’, and she immediately corrected me that it is ‘Linux’, with a short ‘i’.  (this was 1999, after all)   At the time I had the impression she might be Press, but now yes I think she was a Fed.   Well I was a n00b at DefCon and didn’t feel like tangling with any Feds, but I was able to follow one of the Fed-spotting winners to the obscure area where they had the T-shirts, and talk the (reluctant) guy out of one for $20.
Hacked the hackers’ contest.   It’s still a prized possession today.

For those who are interested and have time, all the presentations from 1999 and since, are archived so you can stream video or audio:
DEF CON 7 Archive

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