Played at DEFCON

I’ve always been curious about DEFCON, and this year I had the chance to attend. Soma FM (where I do design work) was invited to help DJ the chill room at the event.

I suspected DEFCON would be a great place to gather material for my writing. Every good sci fi story needs a computer genius that is ready and willing to break the rules, right? I know many programmers and people that work in computer security, but none of them own up to hacking (unless, cough, they were caught doing this in the distant past and TOTALLY do NOT do that anymore!).

So even though many of my friends have probably tried their hand at what might legally be defined as hacking, I’m a sucker for the romanticized anti-hero version of hackers portrayed in books and movies, and I desperately needed a reality check. 15,000 quote hackers all gathered in one hotel should do the trick.

I arrived and was crushed to discover that The Rio wasn’t overrun with pale, computer-toting geeks dressed all in black. They were there, oh yes indeed, but no one group can really take over a Las Vegas casino–they are enormous. I stood in the lobby as numerous bachelorette parties squealed by and guys wearing sports team jerseys argued drunkenly about god knows what because I paid no attention. Where were my people?

defconbadge2As I made my way through the casino to the convention center, the concentration of black t-shirts and colored hair increased. Soon I was surrounded. I collected my badge and program and suddenly realized I was part of a game, and not as I player–I was a game piece! The badges (gorgeous printed circuit boards) were all different playing cards. I had an artist badge. There weren’t many of these so people were excited to photograph mine. There is an 18-digit number on the back, and an embossed symbol that looks like a sliced pie with pieces missing. I still don’t know what this was all about.

I never realized how important games and puzzles are to hardcore computer geeks. I mean, sure, my friends play games incessantly but I thought that was just them. The urge to pick locks (there was a whole room dedicated to this art) and decrypt codes is only the tip of a huge iceberg of insatiable curiosity. On the plane ride back to San Francisco, my friend told me he’d spent nearly 24 hours (straight) on a crypto puzzle that finally yielded that address of a secret party. How was the party? I asked. Boring, he replied. Lemme guess, 30 guys standing around not talking? Pretty much, he said. That wasn’t the point, obviously. He solved it, game over.

I asked if he went to any of the sessions (which I assumed were the main event) and he laughed and said he hadn’t been to a session in YEARS. Naive me!

My friend might have laughed off the sessions, but all that I went to were packed and overflowing. I was grateful to find some that weren’t too technical. Home Invasion 2.0 was scary-fascinating. Many of our wifi-enabled home devices are configured with inadequate security, thanks to manufacturers racing to be first to market. A super cute white bunny, part baby monitor part kids toy, can easily be hacked to allow the video camera to be turned on and kept on, the data streaming to a hacker’s computer. That was the least scary scenario. The presenters easily hacked a door lock, reprogrammed it to a new code, and opened it, live on stage. I’d never heard of Songdo, a smart city built from the ground up in South Korea (one of the speakers mentioned it during the talk). It reminded me of New Canberra in my novel Six and I realized I need to set the book not quite so far in the future.

These examples, and what I’ve read about hacking car computers and implanted medical devices, frighten me. I didn’t imagine these Dr. Who-esque scenarios were possible today but oh yeah, they are.

At DEFCON I felt the uneasy juxtaposition of white hat hackers, eager to expose weaknesses so they can be fixed, and black hat hackers there to fuck things up and steal shit. (The quadcopter demo was really about flying a tiny computer to a spot, perching, and collecting private data.) Throw the ACLU and EFF into the mix and it was even more bizarre. I felt like I was getting slapped on one cheek then the other. “We’re here to help you!” “We’re here to steal from you!” “We want to keep your data safe!” “We want your data.” “This is all just a game.” “This is deadly serious.”

At the “Phantom Network Surveillance UAV/Drone” panel, I witnessed the “first time speaking at conference, must do a shot” ritual:


I hoped to distract myself from worrying about the future of humanity by going to some of the numerous parties. BT played on Friday night, and I was super excited, urging my friends to “hurry before it reached capacity.” Cough.


The huge room was 20% full of mildly interested men. Men, because the ratio of men to women at this conference was probably 100 to 1. I took a video as I walked upstream in a crowded hallway, but frankly, it just depressed me and I deleted it. I don’t blame the organizers of DEFCON for this. Anyone with $180 can attend. Women don’t go. I wish they would. I’ve found that any company/event/conversation that is dominated by one sex tends to get a bit wonky.

The pool party Saturday night was great. I’ve never been in a pool in Las Vegas at night. They always close annoyingly early…I presume to drive people back into the casino. Extra great was the fact that they left the pool lights OFF so those of us who hadn’t brought a suit could pass off our underwear as an “underwear-style” bikini. I ran into old friends and met a woman who claimed to be an editor for a small science fiction press that was eager for submissions. That alone should have tipped me off. I checked out her website when I got home and found it was a blog with very few entries, one of which was a photo of her in a kitchen in a Halloween costume. Heh.

The chill room was very popular, and we met many SomaFM fans. I did two DJ shifts and was pleased not to mess up on the unfamiliar system. The view of the chill room from the DJ area:


Everything I heard and observed was tremendously helpful to me as an author. I’ve got some explaining to do in my stories and novel. I believe that privacy as we thought of it a decade ago won’t be freely available in the future, but suspect you will be able to purchase it. Many won’t be able to afford it and might not care. We’ve already proven this with Facebook. The question is–am I right? Will we be able to buy privacy? Will technology emerge to protect us from other, hostile technology?

All in all, I had an excellent time, learned a lot, got a little freaked out (for good reason), and look forward to attending again. Or, I can spend a long afternoon playing a game with my friends, pick their brains, and the drinks will be way cheaper. : )

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