non-fiction writing organizing writing Thoughts on writing Uncategorized

Thinking of Def Con

Def Con 28 will be held this year in a virtual “safe mode”, the physical event in Las Vegas cancelled. I went to Def Con II and III. That was a long time ago.

In  1994 I was at the edge of the hacker community, tolerated, despite my older age and my chief interest in telephones.

At the time I self-published a magazine on the telephone system and I always gave away free copies whenever I went to hacker “meetings” in Sacramento or San Francisco.

These get togethers were somewhat like Meetup Meetings today, people simply showed up. These monthly happenings were organized, and I hate to use that word, under the thin shade of 2600 magazine.

They published meeting places for cities across the country at which almost anyone might show. These locations were often at a mall near a bank of payphones. The San Francisco meeting site was near Mrs. Fields Cookies at the Embarcadero Plaza. Which was nice. Back to Def Con.

My first trip to Las Vegas was for Def Con II in August of 1994. It was held at the Sahara, now torn down. Wikipedia says there were 200 people there, that sounds about right. Def Con 27 last year drew over 30,000.

The highlight for me was the video linkup with the Chaos Computer Club in Germany. The video stammered and stalled but it was a remarkable achievement. A 56K dial up modem was the best data transfer you could get at the time, perhaps both groups paired two modems, I don’t know. In any case, Def Con got consumer grade, off the shelf hardware using regular telephone lines to work a video connection half-way around the world. Really impressive for 1994.

The first presentation, though, wasn’t impressive, although totally in keeping with the spirit of the times and the attendees. I walked in early to a hall with fifty or sixty mostly empty chairs. A group of six or seven hackers were in the far corner watching a big screen TV on the wall showing hard core porn. Okay. I mentioned something to Dark Tangent about that not being appropriate but he was busy since the first speaker hadn’t shown up. And there was no “Plan B.” As if hackers would ever have a Plan B.

The mood became somewhat restive as the the hall filled with people. Word was getting around that the speaker was missing and yet this was the kickoff to the event.

Peter Shipley was in the crowd and many of us knew him enough to badger him with an idea we all had at once. Our little circle pounced on him, begging him to give a talk on UNIX. I knew him from San Francisco although he lived in Berkeley. I once went to a big 2600 meeting afterparty at his house in Berkeley, where I overheard some odd talk from an older guest. I went up to Shipley, “Do you know that guy is from the F.B.I.?” “Yeah, I invited him.”

Shipley refused to give a talk. Wouldn’t do it. But with the crowd becoming restless, Shipley broke down. “Okay, I will not give a talk on UNIX. But I will get up and answer questions on UNIX.” Fair enough. I think he hung in for at least 30 minutes on stage, answering every question. I doubt anyone in academia or government could match him at that time in discussing that operating system from a practical point of view. This was the invented “Plan B.” The hacker conference had been hacked.

And then there was III in 1995, still really informal. Two young kids sat behind a table, taking money and making up entrance badges. Because I was older and looked very square, the first kid asked me if I was a Fed. I said, “No, I just play one on TV.” He looked stunned. His friend said, “That’s the best comeback line you’ll hear all day.” The kid slowly nodded.

Def Con III was very enjoyable for me even though I didn’t attend many talks. My magazine was coming along and I had brought boxes of copies to give away. When I didn’t feel like listening to a presentation, I went out to an exhibit hall where there were a few people selling things. I would just sit down at a table and spread out copies. No vendor table fee, no Nevada resale license required, no nothing. Sit down. Many people came along who had read the magazine, enjoyed it, and I got many subscriptions. Although that wasn’t my goal, I was there to talk telephones and hacking and anything else.

You never knew what would come up. Someone might say that they just had their car washed and then the next thing you knew, five or six people would gather round to venture how an automatic car wash might be hacked. It was really just curiosity, challenge,  inventiveness, and sport.

A favorite memory of Def Con III was when Dark Tangent gave away a “I Am The Fed” t-shirt. The hall that day was packed, with probably a hundred people attending a talk. Dark Tangent broke in at one point to show off this beautifully designed t-shirt, a really pretty thing, a great souvenir. _If_ you were a a Fed. “All you have to do to claim this,” Dark Tangent explained, “Is to come up here and show your badge.” A low stir welled in the crowd. We all knew law enforcement was present, most assuredly some older guys, but there were also private security consultants of the same age. After a long minute, a man stood up and walked quickly down the aisle, his head bent a little, his hand outstretched showing a big gold badge. Treasury Department. Everyone clapped and hooted as he got his shirt and hustled back to his seat.

Those were early days in computer hacking. At that time, some consultants told me that the F.B.I. and other agencies were working out how they could attend hacker meetings and whether they should at all. The debating point was this, are we in law enforcement inhibiting free speech by our presence? Most of the younger hackers, though, seemed enthralled to talk to law enforcement, something I can only attribute to inexperience and being starstruck. “I’m talking to a real G-Man!” I think this caused trouble later on for many of them. I had been a freelance legal assistant in years past, often for criminal defense lawyers and I never talked to anyone who could put me in handcuffs. Besides, it was only one way talk.

Law enforcement was constantly soaking up information but never giving anything back, unlike hackers where a free flow of information was common. Like today with cryptology. The NSA constantly trolls universities and industry for information but never reveals how far they are ahead of both. Academics think the NSA might be ten years ahead of them but the NSA will never say.

This highlights, too, the great divide between hackers and the police. Law enforcement types favors control, hackers push control away. You’re never going to reconcile this. At the time, the F.B.I. and other agencies had to teach hacking to their agents. They’d go to classes during the day and then go back home to the wife and kids. Meanwhile, the hacker is up at three in the morning, maybe awake for two nights on Mountain Dew, hacking and coding on his own because that’s what he does. The motivation and the desire to learn is completely different between the groups. The F.B.I., though, makes up for their lack of motivation, knowledge, and talent with money and resources no hacker will ever have. I guess the F.B.I. and the like now recruits hackers, I don’t know. But it was a big, glaring difference.

Above all, I admired the dedication of Dark Tangent to his conference. It became clear early on that he was working nearly full time on a once a year project. At Def Con II he was planning Def Con III. At III he was working on IV. That’s Big Picture Thinking, when you you devote yourself 365 days for three days. There wasn’t any money in those days for him, except to lose it. It was his project, though, and what he did benefited everyone in the hacker community. Def Con was always something a hacker wanted to go to and a happening everyone asked me about. It gave people something to look forward to all year long, like waiting for Christmas. Being in Las Vegas just added to a hacker’s desire to get there. Hackers around the world knew about Def Con and most wanted badly to go. Dark Tangent allowed these people to dream about a place where they would be welcomed and embraced. Very few people create a dream.

I’ve gone on too long. I doubt I’ll ever return to Def Con but I am glad it is still there. Over the decades the image of a hacker has improved somewhat, as many of the people I knew went into security, in other words, became legitimate, professional hackers. White hat hackers. Whatever. Trust me, they’re still trying to figure out how to hack that car wash.

By thomasfarley01

Business writer and graphic arts gadfly.

Leave a Reply