I slept soundly as I adjusted to the peculiarities of Nevadastan. When I woke the next morning, I had twenty minutes to get ready for my first panel. Before I came to Defcon, I had picked out a schedule full of panels that I thought would carry the interest of any possible readers. Dressed in a much more reasonable vintage Hawaiian t-shirt and shorts, I bounded out the door, said goodbye to Dougan and Sean who were currently trying to decode the badge and headed downstairs. The talks at Defcon are as varied as the convention goers. Titles ranged from ‘How Hackers Survived the Zombie Apocalypse’ to ‘Weaponizing Lady Gaga’, a However, a good portion of your time is spent waiting in line as you are filed into the panel with the speaker, sometimes as much as just the talk itself. Initially I waited in line just like everyone else did, going to as many talks as possible, still unsure of how to cover Defcon.
The ‘real’ press was out in full force, as men burdened with camcorders loomed in hallways, giving panoramas of the event. I couldn’t help but feel a bit minuscule with only my notebook and pocket camera. Congestion too and from panels was terrible. The aging Riveria was taxed by the sheer number of convention goers, as shoulder to shoulder traffic stretched from wall to wall, this quickly heated the confined spaces that we were trapped in to that of a sauna. Among the most common topics for panels of discussion included the assaults on internet privacy by both corporations and government, and the nature of cyber-crime/terrorism. The emphasis on these topics is no doubt fueled in part by the internet kill-switch bill, and the attacks on net neutrality. Near the end of the second day, I had a revelation concerning the talks. The lectures there-in were already provided on the cd given to me along with my badge at registration. This would then be shortly leaked to the internet as free information. It was only after exhausting myself by moving from room to room for the duration of the day had I realized this. Instead, I decided to salvage the notes I had made by using the points therein as ‘diving boards’ to future articles. When the evening came, I decided to tour my first Vegas casino.
No clocks. No windows. Only the unending series of lights above me, the dull and aesthetically displeasing carpet beneath me, and the endless stretches of one armed bandits, and same colored walls before me. Being on the casino ground floor was like being in a dream, nothing felt very real. I suspect that I wasn’t the only inhabitant of the Riveria to feel that way, from the rate people were pouring money into the casino. The elevators to my room were through the very center of this no man’s land, and it wasn’t well until the next day that I’d learn the layout of the place. In the mean time I had to stick to the walls, which would ultimately lead me to the proper set of elevators. It might have been slower, but it was preferable to being lost. Although ultimately I knew that it wasn’t getting lost that bothered me; I too heard the siren calls of the slots like so many others, and preferred to avoid the temptation to ‘win it big’ and save some of my money. For the time being at least.
In lieu of throwing down money to pay for a second Faberge Egg for the hotel, I attended my first Defcon contest with Sean, called Hacker Jeopardy. Hacker Jeopardy played out much like you’d expect Jeopardy too, except that Alex Trebeck (whom I always thought looked like a crooked Methodist minister) was absent, being replaced by a Lewis Black-as-a-game show host impersonator. Oh, and whenever a daily double got answered right, the card-girl dubbed ‘Vinyl Vana’ would remove a piece of clothing. Get an answer wrong, and you are at the mercy of her and her cat-o’nine-tails. The added bonuses being that you get points added to your score as you drink beers, which are expected of contestants in order to support their team. It wasn’t exactly Sean’s show, as he averted his eyes every time ‘Vinyl’ discarded another layer of clothing. Should you be a lucky audience member and get an answer right, you got some Defcon 18 swag to show for your efforts.
After it was over, Sean headed back to the room. But I wasn’t quite finished with the evening yet. There was a meet for people from the forums that I intended to go to. Despite the fact that I hadn’t actually signed up for the forums, it seemed like a good opportunity to do some ground work. The party was being held in a skybox that was above the room that held Hacker Jeopardy. While loud techno music blared, lights strobed in rhythm with the beats. Club-Mate was a common drink for those who had had enough alcohol. Being a caffeine injected mate based extract, the slogan ‘One gets used to it’ was more than appropriate. I looked around me, as people clumped together into little groups. I still stood rather awkwardly by myself. I had never been good with just meeting people. I downed the drink I had and thought about taking off and calling it a night. I looked down at my shoes; I was a failure as a newsman. Did I really think I could get a better scoop than the pros? ‘Excuse me,’ a female voice said. I looked up and saw a red-head woman, somewhat shorter than I was. She smiled. ‘It seems you’re just as lost as we are.’ She said, indicating towards a man wearing a black kilt with frazzled brown hair that would do Carrot-top proud. It was then that I met ‘Mystique’ and ‘Quality’.
Those of course weren’t their real names but handles, a protective bubble that most people never consider having around them. While Defcon attendees might have differed on many issues, privacy was something they could all agree on. In a world with shrinking anonymity, they felt pressed to exercise what shreds of secrecy they could hold on too. After giving them my real name and identifying myself as press, we talked. Mystique and Quality were students from Oklahoma State, and were both computer science majors. Bemoaning the lack of things to do in Tulsa, they were astounded by what Vegas had to offer as I was. They came to the con as so many others did, for fun, but also to pick up a few tricks along the way. A man wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and bearing a backpack with a bottle of Grey Goose happened by. He asked to join us and we obliged. He identified himself as Jarett. Jarret is a Director of Datacenter Operations by trade; a photographer by hobby. And what a photographer he is. When pressed to see some of his work, he pulled out his ipad and displayed his photographs. You can see his work here. Someone bumped into the volume knob and turned it up. I suddenly couldn’t hear our group anymore. Unwilling to leave my new acquaintances, I regulated myself to the old standby – the smiling and nodding role, downing drinks to remain sociable when able.
As the meet wound down, we decided to hit the chill-out room. The chill-out room was open at all times of day and night. Loud electronica blasted from the speakers as a projector displayed psychedelic images. A massive paper-mache dragon hung from the ceiling, and occasionally the projector would produce gout of pastel Colours aimed towards the dragon’s open mouth so it looked as if it produced flame. We got on the miniature dance floor, the tiny piece of ten by ten laminated wood standing against the otherwise carpet floor. It is no secret that I am a terrible dancer. My methods of strutting my stuff aren’t improved much either when I’ve had a few drinks. Electronica is different though.
With Electronica there are no rules, even the moves that would get you laughed out of many a club such as the old man two step, the sprinkler, and even the worm are accepted. You move like how you want to move. The embrace of individualism seen in ravers and people who let the music move them is a quality held by the ‘hacker fringe’ in high esteem. I bobbed my head at first, letting myself feel the beat as I closed my eyes, avoiding some of the more painful strobe patterns as I adjusted to the dark. Soon I found myself moving with everyone else on the floor, my body going where the music guided me, perhaps not as gracefully as some, but moving me all the same. Tipsy, sweaty and tired, I bid adieu to my new friends and went back to the room.
“Looks like there was quite a party on the roof.” Dugan said. “Hmm?” I asked, reaching for my press badge. There was quite a scene beneath us. On the roof below, it was apparent that someone found a roof access. A laptop, smashed to smithereens lay below, along with several bottles of alcohol, some chairs, and a table. As we watched we took relish in finding new things on the roof that shouldn’t be there. It was just about this time that who I can only assume were hotel security took in the scene just moments after we arrived at the window. We watched as he used his shoulder mounted radio to call in for back up, and soon there were three of them standing there on the roof, shaking their heads. The things that great recession workers have to put up with, no?
I was tired of panels. I treated myself to sleeping in that morning. I decided I’d take a serious tour of the lock pick village, and the vendor room. I had peaked in before, but I hadn’t bothered to buy anything yet, believing the prices would drop substantially by the third day. I realized that I hadn’t done any events personally yet. I had my eye on the Gringo Warrior competition when I initially saw it, in my wilder and woollier days I had an interest in physical security which ran rather deep. Furthermore, I doubted that journalists covering the event would be attempting any challenges at the con. Ready to seize the day, I headed downstairs. Finding the lock picking room disappointingly closed, (holding a baby shower instead of the lock pick village) I turned to the Vendors room. From CB radios to electronics, lock picks to livery, the Vendor room had it all. Even if the items in the Vendors were a bit pricier. As soon as I came upon the frame with the locks on it, I made a bee line for the stand. I waited eagerly to try out the tumblers, curious to see how secure they were. The table that the frame stood upon had various picks and tension tools on it, begging to be used. After picking out one of the shorter tension wrenches and a reasonably undamaged full hook pick, I went to work.
My efforts were fruitless however, and frustrated I put the tools back, walking over to the front of the stand where a vendor explained that the locks were nearly pick-proof; a locksmith replacing the normal cylinder pins with spindle and mushroom type pins making it very difficult to tell which pins had been picked. The locks were also tension resistant, requiring just the amount of effort to turn a key to open. Any more or less and the cylinder would freeze. I started to head out of the room, a little disappointed that I was unable to open the locks when the stand near the door caught my eyes.
Stacks of books entitled ‘Acts of the Apostles’ with a medieval tapestry motif on the cover caught my ever roving eye. That was how I met John Sundman; a recipient of the Society of Technical Communication’s Award of Distinguished Technical Communication and Brazil’s Rei do Lixo medal, self published author and a rather interesting individual.
‘That’s a rather unusual cover for a book at a security convention.’ I said, indicating to a nearby copy of ‘Acts…’ “Ah, I find it works well to attract attention.” John responded. We held a short conversation over the nature of Defcon, publishing, and the world of words we enveloped each other. Before we parted ways I slammed a ten on the table, he passed me a copy of ‘Acts’ and autographed it. Just as I was taking it, he gave me his business card, asking me to tell me what I thought about it, even if it was rubbish. I grinned telling him that ‘if nothing else, it would make a very effective coaster’ before heading over to register for Gringo Warrior.
Putting my name down on the list, I waited my turn to take to the stage a bit nervously. It was in between my time of watching people clear the course that they all had their own tools. I, by contrast, had none. I watched as a contestant with spiked blue hair who called himself ‘Konrad’ used a set of picks very similar to mine that I have at home. He passed the course, but didn’t do good enough to get into the finals. Letting himself into the crowd, I approached him and explained my pick-less situation. Without as much as a second thought he loaned me the set. I thanked him and picked out my favorite tools from the set, handing him back the rest. My moniker was called. I took to the stage. I had around sixty sets of eyes upon me, one pair of handcuffs, one guard to subdue, two doors to get through and five minutes to do all of it in. The clock started, and I was off.
I struggled against the handcuffs, looking down at the dull green pair of ‘easy’ cuffs. I took my tension wrench and immediately began to probe around them, testing them this way and the other. It was to no avail however, and at the 2:30 mark I required someone to undo the cuffs for me. I had no time to fool around with any medium locks. I dived right into the easy door lock, working quickly to make up for lost time. I opened the door and with a ‘Judo Chop!’ I stopped the guard dead in his tracks. I approached the next lock another easy and within a few seconds that too was open. Grabbing the guards disguise and pulling him back to where I started, I made a go for my passport when I started to run out of time. With five seconds left on the clock, I dashed across the stage at the last second, my victory met with applause.
My score was tallied up, and while I fell considerably short of any contestants who placed in the top five, I still managed to at least break 50 points. After getting thanked for playing and being encouraged to get my hair chopped in a show of support for the EFF that would add bonus points to my score, I returned to tools to Konrad, thanked him and decided to find out more about the EFF. Certainly if it could explain so many hawked up people running about, it may very well be worth checking out. As I approached the room for the EFF (or Electronic Frontier Foundation) I heard the sounds of a police trainer. I watched as a Defcon attendee assumed a firing position with a mocked up M1911. Having a little experience with handguns before, I decided to give the game a try. After forking over twenty dollars, I played a round. When I was thanked for donating to the EFF, I resolved to learn more about the organization.
The EFF is a non-profit organization based around digital rights advocacy for the user and to stop infringements on these rights. To these ends, it provides funds for legal defence in court, challenges legislation that threatens digital rights advocacy, defends individuals and new technologies in court, and sponsors new emerging technologies that preserve personal freedom. I learned that they had won the court-case to make jail-breaking your smart phone of choice perfectly legal. It occurred to me that in such times where privacy was dwindling rapidly and user rights were being infringed upon by corporations that nothing would be more important that an organization such as this. I joined straight away, and walked out of the EFF room wearing one of their T-shirts.
Leaving the EFF room, I fought my way back against the horde of people lying up for the next row of panels. As I finally got out of the bottlenecked section of the crowd, I saw a man emerge five or six feet away from me. A Caucasian with flattop style hair, he wore a black suit and tie against a white shirt. His dress shoes, also black, were spit shined. I couldn’t help but giggle. Was this a joke of some sort? Why would a federal agent wear something so obvious? So cliché? I got close enough to him to verify that this wasn’t some bizarre Wight brought on by the desert heat or my lack of sleep. I muttered ‘Fed’ underneath my breath in a teasing tone. I watched as he turned and scowled at me with such ferocity that I decided I should walk at a somewhat faster clip to my room.
That evening, was the officially held Defcon party. It was just my luck however, that the event was only for 21 and overs. Despite my best efforts at sneaking in, it was to no avail. There were at least six people checking ID’s at the front. While I waited though I met a man named ‘Chuck_B’ a participant at FAWM.org, we discussed the recording business, both agreeing that it was biased against ‘corporate artists’, compared our tastes in older country music, and a desire to see copyright laws be shredded. Finally as we approached the entrance, I said I’d meet him inside and that I had left my ID in the room. With a ‘nice to meet you’ and a ding of an elevator, I said goodbye to Chuck_B.
It was then that I realized that I had nothing to do for the rest of the evening. I had nothing planned out, getting into that exclusive party was really my only goal. I went back up to the room to meditate over what to do and grab the cigar I bought before I left. The victory cig was a Rocky Patel Connecticut, and was quite a few levels above the swishers I used to smoke back in my freshman college days. I headed outside to the pool area where people who weren’t in a party upstairs were congregating. After lighting up I took the scene in. Aside from the music, you could hardly tell any festivities were in place. People drank and talked calmly, no one was dancing although there were a few who were floating about in the pool. It was then that I wandered over to a group of fellow smokers.
‘Hey man, mind if I give that cigar a try?’ One of them asked me. ‘Nawh, go right ahead.’ I said, and offered him the Patel. In turn he gave me a drag off of his black, which had an interesting flavor that I didn’t like too much either way. ‘Man, that thing is smooth.’ He said. I nodded, giving him the black back. One of them asked if I was upstairs, and I replied that I couldn’t get in, security was too tight. The lot of us shared a laugh about that then. Defcon people like defiant types pushing against the man, even in little ways. It’s part of who they are. I saw my entry for an impromptu interview and took it; after introducing myself as press. The lot of them were college students off on a school sponsored trip to Defcon, all were pursuing computing or technology degrees in the M.A. or higher levels. They all enjoyed the ‘con thoroughly, all were first timers. ‘Hey teach’ said one of them casually as a bespectacled man with a buzz cut and muted, toned muscles strode over.
He introduced himself as ‘Griffin’. He was a regular, having attended the convention for the last seven years, this being his first as a civilian. I asked him how things had changed during the history of the convention. He said that the convention had gone more mainstream, and that this Defcon was immeasurably tamer than those before it, some people even bringing their children now. Those original people that started the con were basically ‘ageing hippies’ and make up the core of the convention. There was a wide age gap and philosophy gap between the older con goers and the newcomers as far as Defcon went. He told me to be on the look out for people dressed in Elvis jumpsuits riding mopeds throughout the hotel. I said that I would, taking him only half seriously. He further said that the rumor that the satellite TV dish that was taken apart and had the scavenger hunt item hidden inside it was absolutely true. He pointed to a line of large antiquated satellite dishes, claiming that one of them had the scavenger hunt item recovered. The guts of the satellite scooped out and put on an endless loop of sending and receiving data, so it looked like it was functioning, even though it wasn’t.
I then endeavoured to ask him what branch of service he was involved with. He replied with Army with a history of counter-terrorism. When pressed with what why he would take a job in technology at a university over counter-terrorism, he revealed that colon cancer rendered him unable to do his job as an interrogation specialist. So, he went civilian and as he always did, attended Defcon. After making a joke that ‘it’s easy to spot the spooks, they wear crew cuts and shorts’ he took a call and was off. I finished my cigar, and that was when I ran into Jarett again. I apologized for the smiling and nodding routine that I pulled on him and explained my lack of hearing due to experimentation with firecrackers as a child. We spent the evening talking about several subjects from the nature of humanity, to religion, to the supernatural, quickly followed dissertations in mental illness and people watching. I would happily write about the conversation we shared, but the very personal nature of our talks forces me to self-censor our dialogue.
Suffice to say, I went back to the room with many things on my mind, a sunnier outlook on life, and feeling the subtle changes from our conversation. So if you are reading this, thank you Jarett.