Defcon22 – Hack my brain

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I suffer from a chronic case of imposter syndrome and I have got to get over it. I recently heard a brave man admit, “I was CEO of four different companies before I felt like I was really a CEO. I kept thinking I wasn’t qualified and I was going to be found out.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Hearing this made me feel better. Very confident people tend to be the ones that speak out so the more tentative of us feel we are surrounded by superstars, which only makes imposter syndrome worse.

I’m not sure why the list of, “I’m not…” screams louder than the list of, “I am.” This was my second year at Defcon and I still felt like I was about to be thrown out for faking it. I wasn’t a hacker. I wasn’t a security professional. I wasn’t programmer or a gamer. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what some of the words meant in the program!

Why didn’t I focus on the positive? I was invited. Soma FM (my day job) provided music for the chill room again, and I’d be DJing. (Even now part of my brain is telling me I’m not a DJ.)

Also, I am extremely interested in privacy rights and surveillance states, and these were the subject of many of the talks. Finally, Defcon is all about the near future, and my science fiction stories take place in the near future. I did belong, and I was qualified, but I skulked around feeling like a trespasser.

Eff at defcon

Still, I had a great time. I went for the full-on paranoia track in the talks. “How To Get Phone Companies To Just Say No To Wiretapping,” by Phil Zimmermann, “Detecting and Defending Against a Surveillance State,” by Robert Rowley, “What the Watchers See: Eavesdropping on Municipal Mesh Cameras for Giggles (or Pure Evil),” by Dustin Hoffman & Thomas (TK) Kinsey, “Am I Being Spied On? Low-tech Ways Of Detecting High-tech Surveillance” by Dr. Phil Polstra, “Dark Mail,” by Ladar Levison & Stephen Watt, “A Survey of Remote Automotive Attack Surfaces,” by Charlie Miller & Chris Valasek, “Ask the EFF: The Year in Digital Civil Liberties,” by Kurt Opsahl, Nate Cardozo, Mark Jaycox, Yan Zhu, & Eva Galperin.

The panels were great. My main takeaways? The technology ordinary people use is super insecure. The out-of-the-box settings leave the devices susceptible to hacking. Outside the home, many small cities (as well as small businesses) don’t have the budget for an IT department, so they are dependent on contractors who set up the equipment and then bail, leaving their former clients untrained and unable to keep up with the ever-changing security landscape. And finally, that the government and corporations are going to intrude until we scream “UNCLE!” with the help of the EFF. I’d be discouraged if it weren’t for the fact, as the EFF helpfully pointed out, that feeling helpless is exactly what the opposing forces want, as that leads us to throw up our hands and say, there is nothing we can do. Fuck that!

mowhawk at defcon

When I wasn’t imagining a bleak future, I had a blissfully good time. I DJ’d. I learned to pick locks (a little). I played Hacker Jeopardy. I watched people get mohawks. I swam. I drank weak Las Vegas convention center drinks. I ate crappy food. I got to watch DJ Spooky do his sound check, then saw the show. I went to parties. I caught up with friends. I danced.

Paul Miller

I spoke to some Defcon oldtimers who were saddened that the event has grown from a small, clubby gathering of friends into a many-headed beast. I’ve heard the same thing about SXSW and burningman and only now can I see both sides. Regarding burningman, I’m on the old timer side of the fence, lamenting that we can’t run around naked shooting guns and peeing on the playa. I was later to game for SXSW, and though I’ve seen it grow I have no right to complain.

But Defcon? If it hadn’t grown and evolved over the years, I’ve never have been able to attend. I realized that growth allows space for the timid and the unsure, those that don’t rush in but have so much to offer if they are invited to participate.

I heard a great definition of hacking from one of the Defcon staffers: Hacking is making a thing do something it wasn’t designed to do.

I am a hacker and I’m going to hack my misguided brain. Goodbye “I’m not” and hello “I am.”

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