By Sascha Segan
L A S V E G A S, July 28
Its not just about the machines.
There are probably hundreds of people at Defcon, the worlds largest
computer security convention, who could take down your companys
network with a few well-placed keystrokes. There are even some who
are trying to explain how to avoid such attacks, if anyones willing
But thats not the heart of Defcon, organizers and attendees say. According to the conventions
official literature, its an annual computer underground party for
hackers, where libertarian geeks, hangers-on, law enforcement
agents and the occasional information systems manager get together
to get drunk, talk about computers, and maybe learn something.
Its where all the idiosyncrasies come out, says Tim Lawless, a
systems administrator at the University of Southern Missisippi.
The convention opened today and will be held at the Alexis Park hotel in Las Vegas
This year has seen several prominent computer-crime incidents,
including denial-of-service attacks that hit prominent Web sites such as Yahoo! and CNN.com in February and the multibillion-dollar Love Bug virus attack that struck computers worldwide in May.
Last year at Defcon, the hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow
premiered BackOrifice 2000, a program that lets network
administrators or system crackers gain control of machines running
This year, with more and more companies reading employees e-mail and tracking their Web surfing, issues of privacy and anonymity are on the minds of Defcon speakers; several seminars address those topics. The hackers are also
interested in the vulnerabilities of supposedly impregnable corporate
Denial-of-service attacks, notably, are missing from the schedule:
True hackers consider them an amateurish act of vandalism, not worth
Because of the recent publicity, the hacker community has become
skittish of anything involving DOS attacks, attendees said, whether its causing or curing them.
Green Hair and Boiler Suits
Its easy to spot the Defcon attendees checking in at the Alexis
Park overwhelmingly young and male, they sport
computer bags and dyed hair, and wear T-shirts that say things
like HackCanada and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. One burly man
checking in Thursday wore an orange boiler suit with bullets jammed in the breast pockets.
There were some kids who were just testing out the lifestyle, like
Matt, a hacker from San Antonio who came with his parents. Clean cut,
soft-spoken, and 17, he said he came to Defcon to begin learning
about computer security techniques.
And there were many more women than one might expect: in tight leather
pants, fishnets, or with green pigtails.
Not everybody at Defcon is a hacker, Lawless says. Many are
girlfriends, scene whores, federal agents doing intelligence
gathering, young script kiddies aiming to become true experts, and
computer security professionals.
One buttoned-down, fiftysomething information systems manager from
Montreal, who declined to give his name (Defcon attendees are
often sticklers for privacy), said with a smile that guys like him
were ruining the con for the hard-core audience who have been there
since the first Defcon in 1993.
The Wild Party
The most buttoned-down attendees federal agents will be getting
I Am The Fed T-shirts as part of a spot the fed contest, where
hackers try to flush out undercover police.
At the Defcon Shoot this
morning, trigger-happy hackers went target shooting with guns out in
Defconners will also attend a formal ball this weekend, dancing to
electronic, house and trance music.
Defcons founder, who calls himself Dark Tangent, remembers a past
convention where the party got out of hand and a hacker and a
hanger-on were caught on a security camera having sex in an elevator.
Theres even a hacker version of Capture the Flag computers will
be set up on an internal network, and the winner will be the one whos able
to break into the most machines.
Its a geek party, after all.