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Even with EFF's Congressphone, activism is a hard sell

Amid an atmosphere of increasing government mistrust, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's classic phone booth to get Defcon hackers to direct dial Congress shows it's not easy to get computer geeks to pick up the phone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's phone booth to get hackers to turn into hacktivists hasn't gotten widespread attention, despite the anti-government mood this year.
Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- Getting hackers to do anything as a collective has been derided as being as pointless as herding cats, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation is betting that an old school phone booth planted in the middle of Defcon will attract attention like fresh tuna to a feline.

The First Amendment advocacy group has set up what it's calling a "CFAA DC Dialer" phone in a classic glass and steel phone booth in hopes of leveraging the ongoing surveillance scandal and other recent events to convince the hacker faithful to ask their congressional representatives to sign laws that will be more favorable to hackers.

Specifically, the EFF is advocating that Defcon attendees ask their congressperson to sign the HR 2454, a rewrite of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act known as Aaron's Law.

The booth, said EFF activist Trevor Timm, has been successful. "We've had at least hundreds of people use the phone," he said. Defcon attendance this year is expected to top last year's record high over the three days at around 15,000 people, which pegs the number of people calling this year at around 3 percent.

To use the phone in the booth, the EFF helps the caller identify their representative, then the caller must dial the congressional switchboard. Mark Jaycox, a policy analyst with the organization, said that the number the EFF is using has had the effect of routing callers directly to their representative's office, not the legislative servers, so that people can leave a direct voicemail for their representative.

"We've had to coax some people," he said. "But it's easy getting people to call their representatives once they're inside. We're finally getting the community to become more active."

Even though the proposed changes to the CFAA would strengthen protections for Defcon attendees, the level of participation makes it apparent that even self-interest is a hard sell for hackers.