So now just over six months since these conferences have ended I have managed to write up my thoughts on them. So much procrastination, traveling and other things to write. Still – better late than never. I’ve had a strong interest in computer security for at least the last 10 years and have dreamed of going to these conferences since at least that long. Of course, I could never afford the cost of an expensive overseas flight and accommodation and when I have been in the states before it was never in summer or on the west coast. This year however things worked out well, being in the right place at the right time.
I had such high expectations for these conferences. Surrounded by some of the most skilled and prominent people in the field, listening and learning from new talks being given, a chance to play some of the games going on and learn or prove myself in the process. There was certainly a lot to look forward to; unfortunately I found both conferences to be a huge disappointment. I found most of the people I interacted with to have a very poor understanding of even basic security concepts which was reflected in the fact that the majority of talks seemed introductory rather than groundbreaking; very few relied on a presumption of basic knowledge – something I thought would be common to the majority of attendees. I was also disappointed in the opinions held by many in response to certain issues such as piracy or the whole Bradley Manning case.
In any case, I have written about my experiences attending these conferences for the first time which some may find interesting. I will be posting it in two separate parts with the first being my experience at hope, followed by my experience at DEFCON and a comparison between the two conferences.
The Next Hope
I got to the Hotel Pennsylvania pretty much on time and waited in line to get my badge which really didn’t take long at all. The badge was interesting to observe although not having much of an understanding of electronics I couldn’t make much of it. Having never been to one of these conferences before, I had expected it to be a lot more active and packed with people than it was, while it was actually quite moderate. I wandered around for a bit as I was hoping there things would be a bit more social, but really nothing seemed to be going on.
I then decided to go and attend the first lecture, “Light, Color and Perception”. It was an interesting talk, although some of what was talked about was a bit over my head. Still, there were some interesting demonstrations and I learned a few new things.
After that, I decided to catch the talk on wireless security, “Wireless Security: Killing Livers, Making Enemies”. I had thought it would be these types of talks that were the reason I came to the conference. Unfortunately, this talk was a disappointment. It was incredibly basic and boiled down to rehashing that WEP is bad. I would have hoped that everyone in the conference would have at least known that, even if they didn’t understand the underlying details as to why. The talk mainly consisted of a few stories demonstrating how easy it is to fool people into joining rogue networks and why this was bad. There were no innovative ideas given for solutions and no talk of the more recent attacks. An hour of how you can screw with people who don’t know any better is not what I was expecting. I was pretty dissatisfied with the talk but thought it would be an exception and looked forward to some of the more technical talks that would have a bit more substance to them. I was mistaken.
I then decided to go and see the keynote which at the least should be interesting. It was by Dan Kaminsky, someone who I have never felt too highly of. He has always seemed to me to be a drama queen, being overly cocky without cause and often simply getting things wrong. I also can’t think much of a security expert who uses 5 letter long root passwords and fails to comprehend the threat of dll hijacking.
I felt he lived up to some of my perceptions during his talk, which was basically talking about the problems in languages that allow for bugs. This is a fairly well understood area of ongoing research and certainly did not seem the worthy subject of a Keynote. It was essentially a slideshow summary of the problem and what has been suggested by many people as solutions. Again, no groundbreaking new ideas or revelations, just a basic summary that a lot of people in attendance would/should have been familiar with.
I’m not too sure what I did at this time. I think I wondered around the mezzanine looking for the segways which had closed for the day. There was nothing really going on that seemed too interesting, so I may have gone home briefly.
The next talk I saw was “Tor and Internet Censorship”, which was actually interesting. I would have hoped that most people in the audience would be familiar with tor and the goals of the project and while the talk was a summary, it also revealed a lot more info on what the guys are trying to accomplish. It was interesting to hear how they deal with countries trying to block the software and the various cat and mouse games they are forced to play. In today’s world the importance of projects such as tor cannot be underrated and it was great to see them keeping in touch with the community and getting the message out.
After this I saw the “Easy Hacks on Telephone Entry Systems” talk, which I hoped would be interesting. I have very little knowledge of telephone infrastructure and still have not gotten around to playing around with Asterix to get a better idea. I had hoped I would be able to pick up some things from the talk even without having the background knowledge. Well, the talk didn’t require any background knowledge. The talk was basically showing that a lot of entry systems still use default passwords and/or have the access control panel only protected by a very flimsy piece of metal. It was interesting to learn those facts…, but it really should have been one of the 20 minute lightning talks. How it stretched out to an hour I don’t know.
After this, I went home as I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t stay for the hotel talks talk as that seems interesting, probably I had had enough talks for one day though and there was nothing in the mezzanine more appealing than sleep.
The next day I arrived kind of late due to trying to work out why the bank had suspended my access to my funds I got there in time for most of the “Grand Theft Lazlow” talk. This talk was one of, if not the most disappointing of the talks I saw throughout all of HOPE and DEFCON. The guy was a developer for Rockstar Games and started talking about his views in piracy. Piracy is a complex area (precisely because it is NOT theft) but this guy would not acknowledge that, simply considering it completely wrong and actually pushing for greater restrictions. Many of the things he was saying were just ignorant and it was disheartening to hear the audience cheer.
An interesting moment was when someone got up to ask a question, making the point that $80 or so is too much to spend on a game without knowing the quality, so he will often pirate and buy the game if he felt it was worth it. Lazlows response was not to comment on the legitimacy of doing that but to accuse the guy of being a liar, to which the crowd cheered. This was meant to be a community of people capable in critical thinking and understanding new ideas, but that crowd was anything but.
Then it was time for the keynote which was said to be given by Julian Assange. At this time I was still catching up with the whole Wikileaks phenomenon so was surprised just how much the feds did want him and how big a thing it would be if he did show up. Obviously he didn’t end up showing and a talk was given by Jacob Applebaum from the Tor project covering why Wikileaks is important, and what they stand for.
Ironically I have not made up my mind on Wikileaks because there is so much contradicting information, and credible claims made against them.
The points given in the talk however were interesting, especially the points of privacy. All of the talk of no secrets reminded me of the Asimov story, The Dead Past, in which privacy is eliminated. Obviously the Wikileaks people are not calling for an end to personal privacy, but even so I find it hard to imagine a world in which governments as powerful as the US are completely transparent. Reason being, there is a lot of justification for a government to keeps things secret from its population, at least for a while.
The most interesting thing about the Keynote was not that Julian Assange did not appear as that is to be expected. It’s that he didn’t teleconference in, or even prerecord something. This is a hacker conference full of people supposedly ahead of the curve when it comes to many issues, not least of which is technology. It’s hard for me to believe there was no one able to set it up so he could talk, an action which would have sent a message all by itself. Was there really no one capable of setting up a webcast to go through anonymous proxies? We could have even gotten the guys from the Pirate Bay or something to host it, by the time a warrant would have been issued the webcast would have been long over. Or, maybe he had his own personal issues to deal with. In place of Assange Jacob Applebaum of the Tor project gave a great presentation and then made an amusingly dramatic exit.
The next talk I saw was “Modern Crimeware” which turned out to be a very basic explanation of how people make money through malware with botnets…not particularly interesting or enlightening. Again, I would expect most people in attendance to already understand this basic stuff. I was hoping for some interesting details on how “cyber-criminals” protect botnets or something….researchers at universities regularly publish far more interesting papers in this vein.
I then saw “Surfs Up” – a well presented and entertaining explanation of CSRF attacks but still a very basic explanation…., I mean, were talks like this presented at the last conference? Why are such introductory talks the norm? I don’t have anything against all these speakers as I think their presentations were fine for what they were, I just don’t understand why they were given at a HOPE conference.
The “Social Engineering” talk was interesting. It was a panel with a lot of famous faces, not least of which were Emmanuel Goldstein, Kevin Mitnick and Captain Crunch. It was interesting just to hear some of the stories these guys were telling and just how easy the technique still works to this day. Definitely an entertaining panel and honestly I wished there had been more like it.
The last talk I saw of the day was “Net Wars Over Free Speech, Freedom, and Secrecy or How to Understand the Hacker and Lulz Battle Against the Church of Scientology”. I was hoping this talk would highlight some of the attacks on free speech that have been instigated by Scientology in the name of religion – instead it was mainly a summary of some of the pranks Anonymous have pulled. Which anyone who keeps up with this type of news would have been aware of?
After that I was disappointed to see that the “Hacker Cinema” was not showing something entertaining or relevant, but rather a documentary. IIRC it was “Get Lamp” which was a documentary on something to do with the history of early text games (corrected due to commenter Pan) which just didn’t seem appealing at 11pm on a Saturday night in New York City.
I was hanging around with some of the other people I had met while we were looking for more information on Lazlow and maybe to see if some other games or something were going on. Nothing much was going on except for a party in the mezzanine with horrible, horrible video game music. So many people actually dancing to repetitive loops of Mario dying and hitting mushrooms. It was just so bad. Somehow, that seemed to say a lot. New York City was right outside on a Saturday night, but dancing to video game sounds was more preferable for many people. Aye
Sunday was the last day of a conference that had so far been disappointing, but still had potential. I got there later than I expected…I think it was due to some problem with the trains. The first talk I saw was not until 13:00, and was “DMCA and ACTA vs Academic & Professional Research”. I was hoping this talk would give some insight into the ACTA treaty as I had not kept up with it and it has largely been kept secret. There was nothing on ACTA except that it was often mentioned in the same breath as the DMCA as being evil. The DMCA had been around for about 10 years so explaining it again resulted in this talk being yet another introductory talk.
The main problem I had with this talk is that the speakers would continual talk about the DMCA as being evil when the problem is not with the legislation. The problems in almost all of the examples given were from people or organizations misusing the DMCA. There was no mention of companies who would refuse to acknowledge counter-claims due to being too scared of being sued. There are actions you can take against this to stop further abuse; failing to realize that and take action does not mean that the DMCA is evil.
The next talk I saw was “Into the Black: DPRK Exploration”, which was slightly entertaining but hardly informative. The first 20 slides or so are just meant to be humorous and were skimmed through, with the rest basically dismissing every claim because North Korea doesn’t have its shit together. A fair argument, but it might have carried more weight if it wasn’t presented as just mocking the country. It’s hard to tell the talk was meant to be considered authoritative or speculation given the way it was presented.
While I was watching the DPRK talk I had no idea how significant the informant’s panel was and that Lamo would be there, so I only managed to catch the last 20 minutes of it or so. I never thought too highly of Lamo before, with his previous claims to fame for “hacking” seeming to be designed to give his as much media exposure as possible rather than actually contributing in any useful way. I didn’t know enough about the Wikileaks situation at the time to take sides but managed to get the gist of things. The main thing I noticed here was that most people were angry at him and insulting him, having made up their minds before he even attempted to defend his actions.
Regardless of if his actions were right or wrong, I do believe in this case he thought he was doing the right thing. What he did is not a simple issue and it made me sad to see everyone dismiss his actions as wrong without bothering to actually give the issue the thought it deserves. It was when question time came that I saw the real character of most of the attendees.
One girl asked him about restraining orders and his ex-girlfriends claims of abuse, which true or not have absolutely no relevance to the issue that was at hand. I expected more from this community than trying to discredit someone further because you disagree with their actions. Another attendee didn’t bother to ask a question but outright accused him of treason (which showed that persons ignorance, as per the definitions Lamo’s actions are closer to patriotism) only for everybody to cheer and applaud. I am still undecided on the entire issue as it is so very complex.
What I do think personally is that Lamo showed a lot of courage by joining in the panel and attempting to justify his actions, knowing the public opinion and abuse he would likely face. Most of the people in the audience would likely not have that courage or strength of will to do what they think is right, are more comfortable criticizing from behind the scenes.
That finished at about 3:30 or 4, and then it was some more hanging around with people in the mezzanine or outside. I had wanted to see the talk on Sniper Forensics but didn’t bother because it was going to be at DEFCON. Of course, it wasn’t, but it didn’t end up being given at HOPE either. Luckily I have my slides on the CD from DEFCON.
The closing ceremonies were interesting. They started very annoyingly as most of the seats were filled, and one fucking douchenozzle told me his seat was taken, when it was just his bag….and he wouldn’t let anyone sit the entire conference. I was planning to do something about that, but he left before I could learn his douche name.
I saw one girl who was basically ignoring the ceremonies, playing Scrabble on Facebook or tweeting about shoes the whole time on her iPad…yet she was continuously moving toward the front….why? Why worry about being at the front if you aren’t paying attention? Then there was a guy who kind of crept up behind me when I was leaning against a pillar, only to somehow swoop in when I left it for a few seconds. He was filming the entire thing and would just keep tapping me to move out of his way….apparently he was unable to speak or say please, despite him being fully capable of speech. I just don’t understand what it is with this crowd and the bizarre lack of social skills. The ceremonies themselves were fine….just what could be expected. Some prizes were awarded and thanks were given as well as talk of a possible next conference.
After that I didn’t feel like going home just yet, so volunteered for a few hours. After I started I heard talk of some prizes for the volunteers which kept me going. Several hours of lifting heavy cables, crates, lights and such…all for nothing. It was at least 4 hours or so of hot sweaty work and I was hoping for a copy of a book or something. Alas…nothing. Funnily enough I don’t really feel guilty about downloading the ebook.
That was the end of The Next HOPE, my first ever conference. I had always been interested in computer security and the associated underground culture. Ever since I saw the movie Hackers which was directly inspired by the 2600 community I had wanted to see what it was all about. Growing up where I did I never really had the opportunity to join in, but as I became a computer security professional and learned more about the community which I had always held in high esteem I couldn’t wait to one day go to one of these conferences and participate.
It was then all the more disappointing to go to a conference and witness in most people an inability to think originally or creatively and to accept popular ideas without giving them the critical analysis they need, that is required to have an opinion worth anything. For most of the talks to be introductory and retreading well known topics was also a disappointment. Where were the new discoveries, the innovative attacks or just the passionate discussions on matters important to our community and society?
One of the interesting things to note was how amazed people were that I could make the badge remain blue and just how incapable they were to figure it out themselves. The badge had LED’s which blinked intermittently in no discernible pattern. When you touched a sensor on the back, it would remain blue. So, in order to keep it as blue, you just had to keep the connection somehow. Yet, no one was able to figure out this very simple hack with people being puzzled at how I accomplished it.
I should also mention the disappointing views that manifested in the talks about piracy or governments or Adrian Lamo. I think at some point in the Informants talk someone made the comment that all nation states are a fundamentally bad thing to which everyone cheered…loudly. Apparently many people in the audience are naïve fucking anarchists, not the caliber of person I would have expected at a HOPE conference.
Club Matte also deserves a mention. This drink was disgusting but hyped up as being from Germany and what hackers in Germany were drinking. Having lived in Berlin for over a year recently I had never seen it before and it tasted like shit. At $4 a bottle it really wasn’t worth the price, yet people were buying it in droves. I can understand if it were to try something new, but people kept buying it to be seen as cool. To be seen as fitting in and being part of the scene. There is just something very sad about that.
One of the highlights of the conference for me was to see Kevin Mitnick and Captain Crunch in person…icons who in many ways shaped the culture and community. I have to wonder what they think of the current state of the communities. Both Mitnick and Crunch did what they did by thinking originally and looking for solutions to problems, the very opposite of just accepting whatever they are told which seems to characterize the current community.
Despite everything I did notice a very strong sense of community, a sense of unity that I had not seen before. What I wonder is has a community once defined by solving problems in innovative ways and creating things never envisioned simply become a hobby group for people who have an interest in technology? Perhaps my expectations were too high or I was looking for the wrong thing, but somehow I don’t think that’s it. I didn’t see a few talks such as the https fragile talk, which may have been technically interesting. Even so, seeing the views of people attending was discouraging. However for $50 it was worth it and I would do it again hoping for a better turn of events.
Update 1 – February 8th 2011
Corrected one typo and fixed the description of the movie Get Lamp.