Defcon opens with a bang, contests, and intrigue

Hacking conference begins with the usual lockpicking contests, software hacks, and target shooting, but also three fewer journalists.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read
One of the many rooms at the Defcon hacker conference. The large screen in the upper right is Buzzword Survivor, where contestants stare at execrable vendor pitches for 30 hours straight--to share in a $5,000 prize. CNET News.com/Declan McCullagh

Updated Saturday with change in price for "Buzzword Survivor" winners.

LAS VEGAS--At the Defcon hacker conference, which opened on Friday, some of the biggest buzz was in the press room.

Three journalists who allegedly sniffed the network in the press room were ejected from Defcon's sister event, the Black Hat security conference, on Thursday. On Friday, the journalists, with Global Security Magazine in France, asked to hold a news conference at Defcon to tell their side of the story. But when the hour arrived, the men were nowhere to be seen.

A press liaison for Defcon said the men, Marc Brami, Dominique Jouniot, and Mauro Israel, had called and canceled shortly before the scheduled hour.

Watch this: Defcon: Where feds and hackers rub elbows

An FBI agent who was at the event to speak on the "Meet the Feds" panel said he had sent the information about the case to the local FBI office in Las Vegas.

"Because of the nature of this, involving (citizens) from another country, it might be sent to the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Department at the Justice Department," James Finch, assistant director for the FBI's cyberdivision, told CNET News. "I would assume that we'd bring it to the State Department, too."

While the brouhaha was the topic of conversation in the press room, a world of software and hardware hacking and events was unfolding in the Riviera conference center all around.

In one popular two-hour session security researchers explained how to make a fake key out of a credit card that can open certain types of Medeco M3 locks.

Other sessions focused on the security issues with social networks, exploiting Google gadgets, and medical identity theft, among many other topics.

Out in the halls and side rooms, hackers were involved in a wild assortment of activities that would make any rational network administrator shudder. One of the most controversial is a "Race to Zero" contest in which contestants modify sample viruses and throw them at antivirus products to see if they are detected.

The Defcon badges themselves are works of art and hackable electronic devices. Attendees are encouraged to come up with the most ingenious and "obscene" badge modifications as part of an official contest.

Then there's the CoffeeWars event where people can have their best coffee selections judged, a Guitar Hero contest, Hacker Jeopardy, a TCP/IP drinking game, lock-picking contests, a Toxic BBQ, an area called "Queercon," and a Defcon shoot at a private range (often with fully automatic weapons, as Nevada law permits).

Outside the event and up in the air a specially rigged weather balloon was launched to demonstrate airborne surveillance, and a van set up as a mobile hacker space was on display.

The show, typically not vendor-oriented, also had a "Buzzword Survivor" event in which 10 people signed up to listen to 30 straight hours of vendor pitches. Whoever lasts through all that marketing speak will share a $5,000 prize. (The original price of $10,000 was lowered after the organizers failed to get enough sponsors, a Defcon spokesman and event judge said.) Oddly, non-contestants were also sitting in.

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