DEF CON – experiencing the world's greatest hacker convention

I was just a young teen when I learned that hacker conferences exist. Flipping through the pages of 2600 Magazine: The Hacker Quarterly that I’d taken from the magazine rack at Barns & Noble, I realized there was a whole hacker sub-culture, and it seemingly came to life at the annual DEF CON hacker conference. It extended beyond the magazine pages, the IRC chat rooms I lurked in, or the hacker forums and manifested in real life.

Two decades later, I found myself on a plane to Las Vegas, Nevada, to my very first DEF CON conference. I had only heard other people’s tales of the world’s largest hacker convention, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous because I knew I was going to run into people that follow me on social media, some I knew, others that I didn’t.

Moreover, I knew there would be undercover law enforcement attending the conference. While I don’t engage in any illegal hacking activities anymore, you never know what interests law enforcement may have while eavesdropping on a conversation. Because hackers and InfoSec people alike value their personal privacy, DEF CON has strict rules against filming, recording, or taking pictures of people without their permission.

First day of the rest of my life

I’m an introverted extrovert. Don’t Google it, it’s a thing. Las Vegas is huge, and for someone like myself who doesn’t like making eye contact with strangers, it can be overwhelming without sunglasses.

I entered the Ceasar Forum with my cyberpunk shades and headphones thumping out beats to drown out any possibility of obligatory socializing. However, I was immediately cast into the throng of the bustling crowds, each with their own mission. Bodies spiraling in every direction, colliding into hugs, laughs of amazement to finally meet each other after connecting on Twitter, LinkedIn, and wherever else like-minded people meet in digital spaces.

This was nothing like the chatrooms where we met.

On the contrary, the masks were off, and the screen names resolved to actual names. This was different, I thought. I knew my friends would be here, and I was beside myself with excitement to meet them. But who else knew me? Friends or foes? Hackers know not to trust one another. For me to call you a friend, you have to earn a place at my table.

I stood in front of the DJ booth listening to electronic music and saw the flashing lights as I disassociated for a moment to take in the sounds. Suddenly, I was snapped back to reality when a man approached me, wanting to shake my hand.

The man recognized me from Twitter. He told me he was the one who purchased one of my art pieces to help me raise money for attending DEF CON. I was glad the art found a worthy home. He’d framed it, and that made me happy.

After that encounter, I ran into one friend after another until I’d collected my ragtag team of techno geeks, and immediately the antisocial walls came down as we weaved against the grain through the chaotic flow of bodies.

I would come to realize that this was the reason why most people went to DEF CON every year. Firstly, to see familiar faces and network with new ones, and secondly, to attend the cybersecurity talks and training villages.

Furthermore, I was amazed at how DEF CON has cultivated a non-judgemental culture and safe space for expressing the freedom of individuality. The people you see are beautifully weird, the fashion statements are bold and courageous.

In fact, I saw more people in kilts than I’ve ever seen at any Renaissance fair. Oftentimes, in society and cyberspace, we’re compelled to project a false persona or diluted version of ourselves simply because we don’t fit in any acceptable social molds and are subject to harassment or exclusion. That’s not a thing at DEF CON, and you feel embraced by this acceptance dynamic.

It reminds me of the famous words from The Mentor, in his essay entitled The Conscience of a Hacker: “We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals.”

He continued, saying: “My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like.”

Furthermore, I witnessed how protective the conference attendees were toward each other, regardless of their profession or technological vice. None of my friends were inappropriately groped or harassed. And when a stranger did make creepy advances in one of my friend’s personal space, others quickly moved to intercept and report the incident without a second thought to ensure that it never happened again.

Conference & gadget life

The sheer magnitude of the conferences felt overwhelming to my ADD brain. Yes, my attention span is similar to an exploding frag grenade. But with so many options to choose from and having an indecisive mind, I decided to pop my head in several talks just to hear what they were saying. This I know to be true – to be a speaker at DEF CON is the highest honor among the hacker conferences. That means that each and every one of these talks was important.

The good news is that you can come and go as you please, and freely explore your options. If you hunger for knowledge, the buffet is virtually endless. There are technological flavors for every palate. If you want to learn to solder or pick locks, or if you’re feeling competitive and wish to try your hand at some red team CTP (capture the flag) and otherwise hack the planet in a safe environment, then you’ve come to the right place.

One of the notable attractions I found was the S.O.D.A. Machine (Shell On Demand Appliance) provided by the National Upcycled Computing Collective, Inc. (NUCC). On the outside, it appears to be a soda machine. But on the inside, it's described as a “heavily modified” virtual machine (VM) that can be connected to over the DEF CON network.

Throw in a little money, and it returns a receipt with login credentials. Users can access the VM remotely through a remote shell, install their own toolkits and use it as though it were their own. Interestingly, the VM can be accessed outside the DEF CON network, in which case a TOR address is also given to anonymize their entry and exit point.

Something worth noting is the underlying commerce flowing beneath the surface of the official DEF CON merchandise and stores throughout the conference. If attendees didn’t sell custom-made badges or unique gadgets, they bartered. We traded interesting and ironic stickers, bracelets, and programmable badges. If you have ever played a role-playing game that required haggling over the value of merchandise, this was the place to put your negotiation skills to the test.

Nightlife infinitium

Leaving Ceasar Forum didn’t mean I left DEF CON in the building. It was everywhere. Swarming in every store, every restaurant, every casino, along the Las Vegas strip, and in every bar. Not only the general attendees and speakers but also celebrities like Jack Rhysider from Darknet Diaries, the nerdcore music legend YTCracker – I’d be exhausted to name them all. Parties shifted from place to place, organizing in one place only to be distributed en mass elsewhere like data packets fragmenting and assembling across the network.

I walked more than I’ve ever walked in my entire life. I slept as little as I’ve ever slept in years. I partied harder than I’ve ever partied in my life, and while the electronic music and LED lights followed us everywhere we went, I came to realize what is most important to people who come to DEF CON.

Whether they traverse land, air, or sea to tour this yearly experience, it is the people of DEF CON that make the conference worth every mile. Additionally, the miles I hoofed along the Las Vegas strip were never traveled alone. Even while filled with wine and gladness late into the wee morning hours, I was escorted safely to my hotel by real friends.

Looking back in retrospect, if I had known the conference would be life changing, I would have attended years ago and every year after that.

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