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Hackers and establishment to mingle at DEFCON

But don't get scared everyone

By Doug Mohney: Monday 19 July 2004, 06:55

DEFCON 12, the oldest continuously running hacker convention, takes place at the end of the month in Vegas. Already there’s an up tick of fearful announcements from PR flacks and the press. Expect to read more over the next two weeks, blaming everything from the latest Windows XP security holes to mass toaster failure on the forthcoming gathering.

It’s a perception that’s a little bit out of touch with reality.

At the earliest DEFCON hacker conventions in Las Vegas, one of the most popular street games was "Spot the Fed". DEFCON attendees were invited to single out the US law enforcement federal government employees in attendance. Successful outing results in the spotter receiving a "Spot the Fed T-shirt" complete with a universe of Uncle Sam government agency logos. It was a playful teasing between supposed adversaries, with DEFCON serving a Switzerland-type role where so-called "Black Hats" could strut the latest code hacks and methods to break down security procedures while "White Hats" took notes on what cyber badboys had discovered.

Over the years, the relationship between organisers and Feds has evolved into a more complex one. Today, DEFCON staff discreetly swap "I'm the Fed" T-shirts for three-letter-agency coffee mugs and other swag. While no official statistics are kept – everyone pays in cash at the door –the total number of Feds attending the conference has steadily gone up over the years, both in terms of sheer bodies and on a percentage basis.

U.S. government employees started officially appearing on the DEFCON program guide back in DEFCON 4/1996 when the FBI's San Francisco Computer Crime Squad showed up to speak to the crowd, not arrest them. Over the years, speakers from the United States Army and National Security Agency have made presentations.

For DEFCON 12, an associate professor from the West Point military academy, an analyst from the Navy Criminal Investigative Service will be among the military feds giving talks, but perhaps the most interesting talk will be given by Robert Morris Senior, former chief scientist at NSA and father of Robert Tappan Morris. Junior is best known for his 1988 release of the original Internet worm. In addition, a number of West Point professors may be roaming around DEFCON to get a taste of potential future adversaries.

There are also likely to be plenty of paying U.S. government workers at DEFCON’s commercial brother, the more formal Black Hat briefing & training held the week before DEFCON. The two day training courses run $2000-2400 per person (lunch and two coffee breaks included) and have proved to be quite a draw since launching in 1997. µ

DEFCON web site


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