I was really really looking forward to DEFCON. This was the hacking conference. The HOPE conference was somewhat known to me, but DEFCON was the main one I had been looking forward to and the whole reason I bothered to go to Las Vegas. I was somewhat disappointed with how HOPE turned out and was expecting a lot more from DEFCON and had even been told by a few people at HOPE that DEFCON was indeed the more technical/sophisticated conference. While it was certainly an interesting experience it was still disappointing for much of the same reasons as I was disappointed with HOPE.
After 8 hours of travel and getting in at about midnight I caught a taxi from the airport just to Decatur and Tropicana. A major intersection and not far away, and yet it cost $50. The taxi driver didn’t rip me off as taxis have premium prices especially from the airport late at night. I have no idea why they feel entitled to collect a tip.
I arrived at my hosts house and we got acquainted and talked for a bit until it was about 2am. I only got about 4 hours of sleep. Even so I woke up and then raced to the Rivera after catching the stupidly priced deuce bus. I got to the hotel in time but could not find the lobby for the shootout…I finally found it, and managed to catch a ride with a group heading to the shoot. These were the first people I’ve met from DEFCON which was interesting. It was interesting to note the difference between most DEFCON people I saw that morning and most of the people I had seen at HOPE. The guys at DEFCON seemed a whole lot more showy…Mohawks or at least hair die, military style fashions. Everything screamed hacker wannabe. I did see one woman with what anyone would interpret to be a Tetris tattoo, but was apparently pixels. If you get a tattoo that looks like Tetris but isn’t Tetris you can’t really be upset when people think it is Tetris.
After a conversationless ride to the shoot we had arrived. After a short safety talk we were free to shoot guns. I’d shot guns the last time I was in Las Vegas…, a Desert Eagle and an AK-47, which was fun. This time everybody had brought their guns to the shoot and there was a wide variety of guns to shot from. I think I shot various semi-automatic and automatic shotguns, rifles and pistols. Probably the most interesting was a gun that looked like a sniper rifle and had a scope, but was apparently not. It was quite fun to take out oranges at 100 feet or so with a single shot and see them explode.
The pricing was interesting…..some people were offering guns completely for free while others were charging at various prices. I shot a lot of AC’s guns staying close to him for no particular reason, and it wasn’t until the end that I found Joshua, who let me shoot quite a lot of guns for free. Considering how broke I was that really ensured I had a great time…Awesome! Joshua and a few others also provided many free drinks for anyone to take, which I thought was amazing….considering how broke I was it was absolutely fantastic. I went back with one of the guys who had been letting me shoot his guns and helped pack up…I could only afford to give him $20 when it should have probably been $30 or $40 based on his prices….but since I helped him pack up I can’t feel to bad.
After helping him pack up I decided to walk from the Riviera to New York New York to catch the bus home. The bus that runs up and down the strip is ridiculously expensive and not often faster than walking. What I had not expected was the tan I received. For being out in Red Rock for 3 hours or so then a walk home I was firmly bronzed and not in the least bit burned (or if at all very slightly…no peeling), which was nice.
I had to borrow money to make sure I had enough for the conference, and after my taxi rides to and from airports was quite short. A friend of mine lent me some money and put it in my bank account…it was when I went to go back on Thursday night to get the badge that I realized my ATM card had expired. A friend drove me to the hotel and was circling around…she would have lent me the money I was short but by the time she came back around the registration had closed. I rushed home and managed to transfer it to my card in time so I could withdraw it the next morning.
On Friday I got to the registration desk early enough, but there was still a line. It progressed fast enough given the length however so it wasn’t too annoying. What I thought was strange was that they ran out of lanyards and guidebooks, although I was lucky enough to get one of the last electronic badges. I can understand running out of electronic badges but why would you make less lanyards then badges? That just seems like a poor design decision. This badge seemed interesting as well although it seemed to do less at first glance. It had a small LCD screen that could be interacted with, which was mainly used by people trying to unlock a code to get access to the Ninja Party.
I decided to take my push scooter to get to the Riviera, partly to see how long it would take and partly because I am always interested in people’s reactions to me riding it. The scooter worked OK and it took me about 30 minutes to get to the strip and then 30 minutes to get down it. Not a much greater time difference when busses are factored in, but without the cost and with the benefit of exercise. The only negative thing was having to lug it around all day, but luckily I was able to leave it with the bellman and pick it up whenever I liked. This was awesome since I was not staying at the hotel, and came in handy when I wanted to use the pool later.
The Keynote which was marked as Top Secret and had a lot of people curious turned out to be something quite mundane, “Perspectives on Cyber Security and Cyber Warfare” which was basically just a summary and some speculation. Surely the Powershell or WPA Too talks would have been more fitting for a Keynote?
I just kind of wandered around for a bit after this, checking out the pool and various sections like CTF and such or trying to socialize with people in the smoking area, where I met a few cool people. The next talk I saw “Build a Lie Detector/Beat a Lie Detector” had a strange rap introduction that seemed out of place and was to hear the lyrics to. It then became essentially a history of the lie detector and a bit on why the machines were easy to fool. So very very basic….and seemed quite short only going for half an hour. Why was a talk like this given at DEFCON 18?
The next talk I saw was “The Law of Laptop Search and Seizure”. This talk seemed to just be highlighting the fact that you have no say in customs searching through your laptop when entering a country. It is an interesting issue and I would have been interested to hear possible solutions rather than just a summary.
I then saw “Air Traffic Control Insecurity 2.0” which I had thought would be about exposing problems with the networks they were on. For instance, were any connected to the internet? Instead the talk highlighted that there were some security problems such as a lack of encryption but given that they are on a closed network that you need authorization to access, it isn’t really a problem. Riiight. Then the talk was about the information that some planes broadcast and potential ways this could be abused, which was interesting to speculate about but note a risk practically.
At this point I was extremely sweaty and had to go home to change. Coming back on the scooter was a different experience, as it was very hard to go down the strip with crowds…and I’m pretty sure one person threw ice at me from a balcony. It was much hotter then as well, making it far less appealing. I underestimated the time it took to go home and come back, and didn’t get back to the conference until about 18:00. This was annoying as I had really wanted to see the Evilgrade and Driversploit talks. Although given that the Evilgrade talk was only 30 minutes long I think I got most of it from the slides.
It seems that many of the videos of the talks or at least audio are available on the DEFCON 18 Archive page, which is cool. Perhaps this is why people don’t care about talks so much except for the very few that are significant, as they can always catch up later. I think this is my lesson learned if I attend next year…I will just focus on CTF and various activities.
I went and saw the talk “Getting Root: Remote Viewing, Non-local Consciousness, Big Picture Hacking, and Knowing Who You Are”, although as it turned out to be spiritual crap, I left. I don’t think I even went as far as getting a seat….I just wanted to see a talk and it seemed more interesting than whatever Kaminsky was rambling on about…or did I?
I didn’t see any more talks that day mainly as the two or three left didn’t seem appealing, although I kind of wish I had seen the Internet Wars panel given that the other panels I saw were all quite entertaining. I thought I would check out the pool…which was basically empty, although nice to swim in the Las vegas summer. Of course my board shorts were falling down, but after trying to find a safety pin luckily the security desk had a whole tray full of them. Even though the pool closed at 10:30 or 11, I would have thought there would be more people. Especially since there was a pool party which just meant free DJ’ing. But no….empty apart from some showboating skinny gay dude with an unfairly hot girl. I had a look in one of the chillout rooms but it had the same electronic music and lack of life that was at HOPE, so given my lack of money I decided to go back home and see what the next day may bring.
It was then that I randomly saw a girl from HOPE walking past quickly following a keg…in which she invited me to follow. Then the leader from AlphaOne labs came who really didn’t seem too interested in talking…just shy I guess. We moved around a bit from room to room as they tried to find a place where they could check ID’s and be allowed to drink. Finally I gave up as nothing interesting was happening, so I decided to go home. During this time I had been talking to a girl who seemed very into me and I felt like I could have pursued her, somehow I was just not interested. The fact that I was not that attracted to her probably had some bearing on that. So ended a Friday night in Las Vegas at a hacker convention, managing to live up to all the nerdy stereotypes long associated with such a thing.
I arrived too late to catch the “Exploiting SCADA” talk as it took just about an hour to get down half the strip on the deuce bus. Who would have thought? I had really wanted to see this as SCADA is a hot topic at the moment and something I don’t know much about. I wasn’t too worried given that there were many SCADA talks at the conference though.
I managed to see the “Jackpotting ATM’s” talk which was surprising as the line was huge and it looked like there was no way I could make it. I ended up being able to get in at the very end, and even managed to make my way down to the front which was awesome. I was excited about this talk as I knew it had been given at Blackhat and I had been disappointed with the DEFCON talks so far. ATM’s are an interesting subject, not least because they promise untapped cash to those who can hack them. Given many are notoriously insecure running a version of Windows or OS/2 it would be interesting to know if they are connected to the internet at all or what their private network is like and just how they are protected. Alas, the talk did not touch on that at all, but rather showed how if you can get physical access to the ATM motherboard how easy it can be to reprogram it. It was a very entertaining talk but honestly it isn’t anything new. It has always been the case that it’s pretty easy to take over a machine if you have physical access. The criminals who managed to reprogram ATM’s to spit out $100 notes instead of $20 notes or whatever was much more impressive.
I then wandered around a bit as the next talk I wanted to see was not for an hour. There was nothing happening at the pool so I ended up just wondering between the smoking area and display areas. One thing I did notice was that the EFF does not seem to understand the meaning of the word donation. There was a police shooting simulator that looked interesting to try, which you could only do if you made a $20 donation. As far as I understand it a donation can be any amount and not require anything in return. What the EF was doing was charging a $20 fee to play a very basic video game, which is just lame.
I then went and saw “From No Way to 0 Day” which seemed elementary. I had thought the focus would be on showing when DoS attacks which are often dismissed can actually be used to craft a privilege escalation exploit.. It didn’t really seem to cover this at all and was far more to do with basic attacks on the Linux kernel.
I managed to catch the “SCADA and ICS for Security Experts: How to avoid Cyberdouchery” talk. SCADA systems are something that have a lot of hype and as a result a lot of misinformation is being spread around. I don’t know that much about them and was interested to learn more and this seemed like a talk that would cover a lot of basic stuff, especially since I missed the talk in the morning. Well, no. This talk took about an hour to say that the problems are overhyped and don’t really exist (without bothering to address the arguments claiming the opposite) in different ways while avoiding ‘cyberdouchery’ boiled down to not hyping problems or blowing things out of proportion. It’s an interesting opinion but the talk may have been easier to respect had he explain why his opinion was contrary to the majority of other talks being given on SCADA issues.
I regretted not seeing the “WPA Too” talk instead as that talk was actually revealing a new attack technique for the first time. Of course no one was talking about it and I didn’t read the description carefully enough to notice. I think I was partly disillusioned by the wireless security talk at HOPE so I just dismissed it. Damn.
I think I went back to the pool at this time. I wondered around the display areas for a bit more and in the interests of socializing thought I would go to the pool. Of course no one was really socializing with each other and there was hardly anyone there. I had wanted to see the talk on “The Chinese Cyberarmy – An Archaeological Study from 2001 to 2010” which was unfortunately and interestingly cancelled. Wayne Huang had a lot of interesting talks and I didn’t get to see any of them…..
I ended up puttering around for another hour then went and saw “DEFCON Security Jam III: Now in 3D?”. This was an awesome talk and easily the most entertaining I had seen so far. It was just a panel of a lot of the regular staff/attendees whatever each sharing stories of fail with games and prizes such as bacon beer to be had and specially made waffles being given out to a few lucky people.
After this it was time for the Freakshow party held by IO labs. It had appeared that you needed a pass to get in but of course it was free for all attendees. Given that there was free beer and I had to show my badge to get in, I think I actually got some value from paying for the badge. It was quite a party, in the penthouse of the Riverra with gladiator style games and some dancing and mingling. People were smoking inside…we weren’t mean to but everyone has. Captain Crunch came up to admonish us and the 3 guys I was talking to at the time just dismissed him, not even knowing who he was. After I pointed out who he was they ran off to apologize….which was funny to me. I got a chance to talk to Captain Crunch himself which was nice and the flowing beer didn’t hurt.
During this time the ultra secret Ninja Party was still on my mind. Somehow I was confident I would be able to get entry as it just seemed like a big display. Riding in a limo bus with free drinks on the way was very nice. Once arriving they did appear to have some bouncers a list, but the people I made friends with at HOPE got me in without any issues. It seemed like if you had the smallest amount of streetsmarts you could get in, yet apparently all these “hackers” could only regurgitate textbook knowledge. Not the type of person I thought the word hacker ever applied to. At this point it was again time to head home, walking to New York New York and then catching my bus. I thought about scoping out the various casinos but without money, there didn’t seem much point.
I woke up too late which wasn’t surprising given the night before. I was kind of annoyed I missed the handcuff talk, but it was too expected. I bought a monorail pass of a guy the day before for $1 and got didn’t realize it put me so far from the hotel. I had to walk from the Hilton and by the time I got there people were telling me it was 13:00. I thought I would then go and watch Samy Kamkar’s talk at which time I realized it was actually 12:30 and I was in some other talk. I rushed out to try and catch the Powershell talk but at 12:30 the line was already too long. I wanted to make sure I caught Samy’s talk so gave up.
Samy Kamkar’s talk, “How I Met Your Girlfriend” was very entertaining, easily the best talk I saw throughout the whole conference. The Security Jam and ATM talks were entertaining but didn’t really have interesting details of a new attack like this talk did. Samy Kumar is a fantastic public speaker as well as being a decent security research. Something sorely lacking at these conferences were people coming up with innovative attacks and presenting them in a decently.
There was nothing else to do until the closing ceremonies, so to the pool I did go. Finally, there were people in the pool, playing games even! A girl I originally met going to the shoot didn’t acknowledge me at all when I tried to say hello, although I managed to get back a guy from HOPE who whooped me in the gladiator games which was fun. It was a pretty fun time just relaxing in the water under the Las Vegas sun.
Finally, it was time to head back for the last talk I would see before the closing ceremonies, Sniper Forensics. Alas, it was cancelled and replaced with a Spot the Fed panel. I have no idea what happened to the Sniper Forensics talk for it to disappear from both HOPE and DEFCON but at least the slides are available. Odd. Spot the Fed was fun with just a lot of joking and guessing, although somehow it wasn’t what I thought it would be. Probably because the feds turned out to be analysts getting paid to go, not FBI agents scoping out threats undercover.
A bit more wandering around and then it was time for the closing ceremonies. It wasn’t too much of a big deal, just everyone being thanked and some prizes being awarded. Free stuff was being given out during although I didn’t get any. After wandering around a bit after everyone left I ended up with a random box of stuff….a motherboard, some music CD’s and a random cell phone data backup device. I also got a 8” floppy disc which I managed to swap for a lanyard, in the hope that I could sell my badge on eBay. Something I have yet to do.
Before leaving home I had a meeting with representatives from one of the big security companies who were present at DEFCON to talk about my business plan. This was very exciting for me, and they seemed eager to help. I last talked to them in September and have not made any progress, but as I finish writing this article I know that I need to get more on that.
That was it, DEFCON was now over. While walking home I stopped for a smoke outside a 7-11 and ran into some friends from HOPE who were happy to see me. We shared contact details and agreed to meet up when I was back in NYC. I arrived home where I just chilled out for the next week, still not having my laptop and deciding what to do while looking for accommodation. Then the rest of my adventures in Las Vegas began.
Much like HOPE, I had very high expectations for DEFCON. Perhaps a bit more as I was not entirely sure I would be able to attend, so when I was able to make it my excitement and expectations increased even more so. DEFCON was the much bigger convention than HOPE, the one where many famous attacks and discoveries had been presented and where many fun hijinks had ensued. Alas, DEFCON was nothing like I expected and I found many of the same criticisms I had of HOPE applied to DEFCON.
There was the same lack of knowledge from people attending and most talks being introductory rather than groundbreaking. I was surprised when I asked to borrow someone’s laptop to check my email, and they thought I was crazy for doing so. How could you take the risk, with all these hackers around? Apparently they had never heard of SSL and certificate authentication. To be fair there was a risk of a keylogger, but I thought it unlikely in this case. There just seems something wrong with people attending a computer security conference fearing magical hackers.
One of the more interesting things I noted about DEFCON was that I did not get checked for my badge. Not once. For a security conference that seems awfully lackluster. I could easily go to any talk I wanted and take full advantage of the conference without having to pay $140. I wonder if it has always been this way or if the goons were unusually slack this year.
The pool parties were quite pathetic, although I was very impressed with the Freakshow party put on by IO labs. The Ninja party was likewise impressive, although neither of these parties can really be attributed to the DEFCON organizers. One thing I did notice at DEFCON was there seemed to be a lot of attractive girls. As sexist as it is, I wonder if they were perhaps just girlfriends of the male attendees. To be fair, I didn’t end up seeing them in any talks or taking part in any of the games. It was a nice distraction from almost everyone getting a Mohawk. So many people with Mohawks…..so many wannabe hackers….so sad. To be fair, the EFF was doing a fundraising campaign offering Mohawks for a price, but many of the people already had them before coming to the conference. Aye.
Speaking of which, the EFF “donations” were really disappointing. If you want to raise money by charging fees for products or services do it. The whole point of a donation is that it is voluntary, not that you pay a fixed price for something.
I do wonder how much DEFCON has changed and if perhaps it is no longer as relevant as it once was. Dallas said during the closing ceremonies that this was the quietest DEFCON he had seen…..which perhaps explained why it wasn’t what I had imagined it to be. Perhaps the previous generation have all grown up, replaced by a generation of attendees with no understanding and a desire to be seen a certain way rather than actually acquire knowledge or skills.
While most of the talks I saw were introductory, there did appear to be quite a few technical talks and I may have just chosen poorly. The Powershell talk, WPA Too and the talk on Farmville all looked like they had innovative research to present and I plan on watching the videos at some point. I was quite disappointed that Wayne Huang had all of his talks pulled, as he looked like he had a lot of interesting stuff to say. Hopefully he will be able to present them next year. If I do go next year, I will make a point to only see key talks and spend more time with CTF or Wargames, although I’m not sure if Wargames are still happening as I don’t recall seeing them.
I do think the crowd at DEFCON is more technical than the crowd at HOPE, although they all tend to stick to socializing or competitions. Trying to discuss things with people outsides there was a clear difference between those who were competing and those who were trying to understand everything being said in the introductory talks.
I would like to make a special note of TheCotMan. What a fucking retard. I understand there are some idiots or troublemakers on the forums, but when people ask for help and have done research you don’t just ban them. He is the type of arrogant idiot that thinks he knows best and has heard it all before, when he has no fucking clue. Although given the average poster on the forum, the type who like to get Mohawks and call themselves hackers without understanding some simple key concepts, he seems to be with his peers.
I honestly don’t know if I will go again this year. I can’t say that it is worth a flight out to Las Vegas again, and given the lack of innovative talks and any kind of decent party, it isn’t really that appealing to me. On the other hand I have good friends in Las Vegas and have my laptop back now, so it could be a fun learning experience. If not, I will defiantly go to DEFCON 20 which should be a big celebration. Despite everything I did have a good time and am glad I went.
Comparison between HOPE and DEFCON
It was interesting to compare the differences between The Next HOPE and DEFCON 18. HOPE was far better organized with people always on staff if you had any questions, with something being available 24/7 during the conference. I liked that you could not enter the conference areas unless your badge was displayed. HOPE was much better prepared for crowds, having overflow rooms setup which projected whoever was speaking in the main room. There were more activity villages at HOPE, more talks, fun things to try like Segways and such. DEFCON didn’t have anything like this really.
On the other hand DEFCON had a much greater number of people, has the well known competitions such as CTF and Wargames and tends to attract a greater number of high profile speakers. DEFCON 18 was terribly organized with it being impossible to get to a room as the only route was a skinny hallway, and they had no overflow rooms or the like. Badges were not checked for once, and there was very little to do that didn’t cost money outside of talks.
One thing I did appreciate is that DEFCON makes videos, audio and slides of the talks available while HOPE charges for this. It isn’t a big issue as most of the talks can be found on youtube, but I think it is a nice gesture to allow people to view them for free. It is a nice gesture and representative of helping people to learn and acquire knowledge, something that is meant to characterize these communities.
I also liked that HOPE allows for preordering for a cheaper price, and it is really something that DEFCON should consider. Running out of lanyards but not badges for example is just ridiculous. Having a cheaper price for those who are regular attendees and having the option to avoid lines would also be quite nice. Perhaps also consider appointing a non douche forum moderator.
I do wonder where these conferences are heading, or if they are losing relevance. As the industry is paying far more attention to computer security the field is going to be restricted down to a much smaller number of professionals, simply because the need will decrease. What about the non computer security aspects such as phreaking, electronics, lockpicking and such? Well, it seemed to me that these are all supplementary and the main theme is still computer security. It will be interesting to see if there is a DEFCON 30, if hacking will go the way of phreaking, or if the culture will grow and adapt. Given my impression of the community as it stands today, I don’t think that is too likely. Which is sad.