This year is a special year for DefCon, an annual hacker convention in Las Vegas. First of all, the past nine months or so have seen hackers rise to international infamy--or just plain fame, depending on whom you talk to. Probably as a result, a number of U.S. government agencies, including the hyper secretive National Security Agency, are swarming the Rio Hotel and Casino, the site of this year's event. And for the first time ever, the convention is welcoming children to attend a junior convention, DefCon Kids, despite a long list of disclaimers from the organizers of the adult conference. Because it turns out that despite the presence of government spooks, one of the world's largest hacker conventions is a pretty lawless affair.
DefCon started in 1993 as a party for the Canadian hacker network "Platinum Net," and they've held on to a fun-loving attitude about the event. Growing from that small group to a record of 10,000 attendees, the event attracts hackers, security professionals, developers, random computer geeks, and, according to DefCon's website, criminals. Jeff Moss, who goes by the hacker handle Dark Tangent, who founded DefCon and a related conference on cyber security called Black Hat, takes no shame in warning people about the potential risks of spending a weekend in a casino full of vigilantes. "Please be aware that if you engage in illegal activities there is a large contingency of feds that attend DefCon," reads the DefCon website. "Talking about how you are going to bomb the RNC convention in front of an FBI agent is a Career Limiting Move!"
That RNC line is a joke--albeit a bit off color--but they're serious about the feds. Reuters reports that the NSA, Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security and NASA are all heading to Las Vegas this week to recruit some of said vigilantes. Richard "Dickie" George is the technical director for the NSA's cyber-defense branch and says the agency is eager to hire "cyber warriors… not rocket scientists." The NSA expects to hire 1,500 people in the next fiscal year and events like DefCon are great opportunities to meet people with the right skill set (hackers) because the cyber security underworld tends to be both elusive and eccentric. But they fit right in at the NSA.
"When I walk down the hall there are people that I see every day and I never know what color their hair's going to be," George told Reuters. "And it's a bonus if they're wearing shoes. We've been in some sense a collection of geeks for a long, long time."
This year, the NSA and other agencies will have the chance to meet a new generation of geeks. The inaugural DefCon Kids event for children aged 8 to 16 will take place at the same time as the adult conference. But parents be warned, the presence of children will not keep the hackers at the adult convention from misbehaving. "DefCon is a very adult orientated conference, more of a party then your typical conference. There will be adult language, alcohol and there may be nudity," reads the the DefCon Kids website. "The DefCon Kids conference room will be situated in and around the adult DefCon, therefore you and your kids will be exposed to a wide assortment of people, lifestyles and philosophies."
Despite the disclaimers, DefCon is a serious affair. Attendees pay their registration fee in cash only so that their identity isn't attached to the event, and security experts recommend a number of precautions against fellow hackers, including backing up your computer before, avoiding ATMs near the conference center, and staying off of the Wi-Fi. According to founder Jeff Moss, who also serves on the Department of Homeland Security's Advisory Council for cyber security, the hackers who can survive the gauntlet of risks are exactly the type of people the government agencies are looking for.
"They need people with the hacker skill set, hacker mind-set. It's not like you go to a hacker university and get blessed with a badge that says you're a hacker. It's a self-appointed label -- you think like one or you don't," said Moss.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.