Sunday, July 31, 2005

DefCon 13 Part II

The Hard Rock Hotel is right across the street from DefCon, pretty convenient except that the street is six lanes, very busy and there are no crosswalks except at the major intersections. So, the shortest legal route between the two involves walking in the wrong direction and more than tripling the distance. That's hard to do when it's 104 outside and there's air conditioning where you're going. So, there are lots of people doing the mad dash all day long. At one point, I noticed a group moving across the lanes, all wearing DefCon badges, one of them in a wheelchair! They were all grouped with the wheelchair guy and making expectedly slow progress, causing an impatient motorist to honk. They yelled back, "hey, he's in a wheelchair" like that explained why they were jay-walking in the first place.

Of course, you don't have to jaywalk to put yourself in harm's way. I nearly got run over by an SUV full of people who were obviously wardriving for the DefCon competition. You know, scorching white Yagi (high gain WiFi antenna) hanging out the passenger window, passengers with laptops in the back seat. Subtle, they were.

I had dinner at my favorite German theme restaurant, the Hofbrauhaus. If you've ever seen a move showing Oktoberfest in Munich, with long wooden tables of people drinking huge mugs of beer and singing, you know what this place looks like, although maybe a bit more restaurant-like than the real thing. They have two huge rooms and when I asked for non-smoking they asked if it was OK to put me in the room that didn't have the insanely loud polka band. Hmmm, let me think, smoking and loud music not of my choosing or not?

There was one really loud table seated next to one of the large screens televising the band from next door. Every few minutes that table would erupt in a round of high-decibel cheering and huge mug raising.

At one point, the band was conducting a contest in the other room. Contestants had to hold a monster mug of beer at arm's length for as long as possible. Loud table just had to participate, so a couple of them were standing in front of the big screen, superimposing themselves into the scene in the next room as their drunken friends cheered them on in a contest they weren't actually participating in. Yet another way that people confuse TV with reality.

Friday finished up with Hacker Jeopardy. The format is three teams of three answering Jeopardy-style questions aimed at computer nerds. The questions are worth 100 to 500 points, and you also get an extra 100 points for every beer your team consumes. Much of the audience is also drinking, and the whole thing is pretty chaotic to the point that sometimes the judge can't hear the answers, sometimes the panel can't hear the questions, most of the time it's not clear whether the miked moderator or the audience has the most control. There's one round of five questions in each of six categories, then a final Jeopardy category/question. That's about enough time for each team to consume about equal points in beer as they earn with the questions.

If the panelists can't answer a question, it goes to the audience. If someone in the audience gets it, they get thrown a prize. In the second round, I won a t-shirt!

One of the categories was "Shit". (Hey, it's DefCon.) One of the questions was: "the oldest known sewer system was built by the Minoan civilization in Crete in this palace." No one on the panel knew the answer, but I did since I had been there and did the tour. "What is Knossos?" Unfortunately, a lot of people in the audience knew that one, and someone got it before I did.
But the 500-point question in that category was "the Greek word for shit."
That one I also knew and was standing as soon as the question was asked. I don't think anyone else was even indicating they knew. "What is skata?" Yeah, free t-shirt. I guess that proves I know my shit, even in Greek.

Also, in the second round, two of the contestants worked a little too hard at earning points through beer consumption and experienced a "reversal." At least it was only beer and not 20 or 30 hot dogs, and mostly off stage.

There was also a category on movie quotes which included several of our favorites: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the war room."
"Surely, you're not serious." Another was "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning." I don't remember the other two, they were both familiar movies.

At one point, the power went out. Imagine several hundred mostly young, mostly drunk, males in a huge dark tent that just lost its air conditioning along with everything else. I packed up and was ready to bolt for the door if things got crazy. Amazingly, lots of people had flashlights and we got the power back in a few minutes. Someone had decided it would be fun to turn off the generator. The organizers were not amused. It just goes to show it only takes one dork to mess things up for a lot of people, even at a hacker convention.

My first session on Saturday was "The Hacker's Guide to Search and Arrest" which was really a talk on constitutional rights for everyone. The speaker was Steve Dunker, a former police officer and now a practicing lawyer.

I learned that when police frisk a suspect, it is only to search for weapons. They're not allowed to go after anything else unless they have a good reason to believe it's contraband. That's why they always ask, "what's that in your pocket there?" If they get an answer that gives them reason to think it's something illegal, it becomes fair game.

He spoke well of the TV show "The Shield". He says that's pretty accurate, that police work "is about 50% 'The Shield' and 50% 'Reno 911'. Any cop who's honest will tell you the same."

His best story was about DEA agents who were staking out a drug dealer. The dealer used a cordless phone for all of his calls, so they rented a nearby house and listened in with a scanner. They were getting great information until the cordless calls suddenly stopped. They poked through his garbage and found a codeless phone, broken, and a receipt for a new corded phone. So, they printed up a notice that looked like one of those offers, "Congratulations you have won either a cruise, a cordless phone, or $50." You'll receive your gift in the next 7 to 10 days." The next week they mailed him a cordless phone, which he happily started using and they were back in business.

(I take that to mean be careful what you say on your cordless phone, although I understand the 900 MHz phones are much more difficult to listen in on. At least the books I saw at DefCon said it was hard, alongside clear instructions on how to do it for older phones.)

One of the most popular sessions of the conference is "Meet the Feds." This year's panel consistent of 11 representatives from agencies such as NSA, DOD, FBI, RCMP, USPS, FTC, Dept. of Treasury, IRS, GAO. The moderator introduced the panel then each one gave short opening remarks. Most of the remarks were all but begging for resumes from talented people who were clean enough to be able to get clearances. To show they weren't all horribly square, one guy from the NSA was wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt and talked of partying with the band.

The moderator, Jim Christie of the DOD, got things rolling with a little survey. "Before we get started, I'd like to do a survey at the request of various agencies. I would like everyone to stand up. (everyone stands) If you're in the NSA, please sit down. If you've never broken the law, sit down. (very few people sat) If you have never illegally broken into a computer system, please sit down. (most everyone sits down, then slowly it dawns on the people still standing what they are revealing about themselves, and to whom they were revealing it, and they sat down as they clued in) I'm sorry, some of the cameras didn't get everyone. Could those people stand back up again? I did that same joke at DefCon five years ago, I'm surprised you fell for it again." It was very funny.

One guy on the panel looked about 80, with disheveled white hair and beard. He'd look totally normal asking for change on the corner. He turned out to be the (former?) chief scientist at the NSA (!) and was apparently well known and highly regarded by the crowd. He gave a very sincere plea for hiring the most talented people and asked those people not to "cross the line" (meaning don't screw yourself out of a cool career by getting a criminal record). He explained, "it's OK to smoke pot, just don't get caught" clearly aiming that remark at Mr. Grateful Dead t-shirt. Despite his appearance, he was clearly very sharp and well spoken. Hackers come in all sizes and shapes.

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