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HOPE conference highlights everyday hacking

Hacker event starting Friday in New York will host of sessions on conventional and unconventional hacks related to security, privacy, and gadgets.

Updated July 18, 7:52 AM PDT with more details about live radio broadcast


NEW YORK--From sessions on how-to create fluorescent mice and crack safes to discussions on losing your privacy in a taxi and complaints about Wikipedia, the Last HOPE conference starting here Friday has something for just about everyone.

The conference is the brainchild of Emmanuel Goldstein, aka Eric Corley, who publishes the notorious 2600 magazine. Corley has seen the community grow from its early days in the1980s with kids going to jail for breaking into the AT&T network, to millions of regular citizens skirting the law with their digital entertainment consumption and iPhone hacking.

Last HOPE organizer, Emmanuel Goldstein, AKA Eric Corley. Elinor Mills

"Basically what the hackers and phone phreakers of the past were doing, everybody is doing today," he said in an interview on Thursday. "This is the price of success; we have these fads of everybody jumping into technologies and playing with things, (but) it's also gotten more commercial."

Back in the day, the phone system was a "giant toy that people wanted to figure out. That's what hacking is all about," he said. "The interest is still there. People want to know how things work, but there's no practical reason for (phone phreaking) beyond curiosity" because of the advent of the Internet.

Meanwhile, the widespread distribution of technology has turned millions into would-be criminals. "It's a free-for-all as far as legal precedent goes," Corley said. "Something you think is completely above-board, like running a program on your own computer, can be a violation of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act)."

The conference program makes for entertaining reading. If you've ever wondered exactly how your luggage gets so banged up after check-in then you might be interested in the session on the Bagcam, a small suitcase containing a mini-digital video recorder and pinhole camera that has documented cases of mishandling in airports around the country.

Another speaker will discuss why transporting firearms may be the best way to safeguard your valuables during flights because federal law requires passengers to lock firearm-bearing luggage.

There's a session on "biohacking"--modifying and engineering biological systems for "novel purposes," such as making fluorescent mice, therapeutic viruses, or bacteria that eat explosives or smell like bananas.

Other sessions cover how to escape high-security handcuffs and topics like cybersexuality, food hacking, postal hacking, social engineering, culture jamming, and hacking the price of food by forming urban communities. Several sessions deal with building hacker collectives, including one by a group whose space is tricked out with drink-serving robots.

One talk is titled "From Black Hat to a Black Suit--How to Climb the Corporate Security Ladder Without Losing your Soul," and another speaker will talk about using the Death Star as a model for assessing security threats. Another session will cover technologies used in modern New York taxis, including GPS tracking, SMS messaging, and touch-screen kiosks, and explore the privacy and security concerns of those.

Keynote speeches are being given by the likes of convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick, former Dead Kennedys singer and songwriter Jello Biafra, and author Steven Levy.

The Last HOPE conference badges come with an RFID chip for tracking participants, if they choose. Last HOPE

There also will be live radio broadcasting from the event. The programming, accessible here, is expected to include houseplants hooked up to live computer visuals and music, a "mutant trumpet" that is half analog and half digital, an animated Wii controlled digital art sketchpad, a robotic drummer and digital gloves for gestural DJing.

The badges also have RFID chips that will be tracking attendees' movements for interactive games.

The event, the seventh since 1994, is being held in the 90-year-old Hotel Pennsylvania across from Penn Station. A move to demolish the slightly rundown hotel (the halls seriously remind me of the hotel in The Shining) appears to be in limbo, but the prospect inspired the name change this year to "Last HOPE."

Corley has placed symbolic black coffins in the registration area and suggested people donate flowers instead of monetary contributions to the event. The cover of the program features artwork of a boy holding the hand of a scythe-carrying Death and walking toward the Hotel Pennsylvania.

"When all is said and it not all too clear that we are all in fact The Last HOPE for the future?" the intro to the program says, before dismissing that as a "pretentious notion."