Ten years after the sellout, Black Hat is solidly corporate and that’s fine

DEF CON is hopefully never going to change


Hardcore hacking

In general the quality of talks at DEF CON is much more technology focused and there are plenty of specialized meetups that would go over the head of many people with an MSCE qualification.

The presenters themselves aren't as polished as those at Black Hat, but they are a lot more human. At a Bluetooth session, the presenters showed a blurry video of their hack in action and apologized for the quality, explaining that they were very drunk when they'd filmed it the night before.

There's a lot more swearing on stage, and a fair bit of drinking, as every new person presenting at the show has their talk interrupted by the volunteer organizers of the show, called goons, and ordered to do a shot of whatever spirit is on hand.

But the presentations themselves are clearly labors of love. I lost count of the number of times you'd hear words to the effect of, "I solved this problem by checking my code base and finding a Python/Ruby/C++ script I'd been noodling around with and it fixed it."

There's a fair amount of alcohol (and other things) being consumed at the show – the bar opens when the doors do and it's not uncommon to see people having beer for breakfast. In the evenings the parties at DEF CON are rightly legendary – participants typically pregame in their hotel rooms before doing the round of sponsored and privately run parties once 9pm swings around.

This most primitive form of brain hacking is popular, but people are remarkably well behaved – by in large. Part of this is down to the rules of the show – politeness is demanded and enforced, pictures and video aren't allowed except by permission, and the goons keep everyone politely (mostly) and firmly within the rules.

The quality of these sessions, from a raw knowledge perspective, is very high indeed and you can learn an awful lot just from nattering in the Chill Out room. There's no doubt that if you want to be on the cutting edge of technical and social computing knowledge then DEF CON is the place to be.

Government still not welcome

There's a long tradition of police and governments sending staff to DEF CON to pick up the latest tricks of the trade. This used to be disliked, and led to the conference game of "Spot the Fed," where attendees would get kudos for outing the undercover officer.

After 2001 that changed slightly, and DEF CON went through a phase of being slightly more welcoming to law enforcement and government types. But after the Snowden revelations, Jeff Moss put his foot down and in 2013 told the Feds "You are not welcome."

That view has eased a little, but not by much. This year organizers said that the presence of Feds would be tolerated if they were here for something specific, but it's back to trying to dissuade people without a clear mission.

That's largely welcomed by most attendees, and there was noticeable friction in some sessions. One former military hacker presenting in the Social Engineering Village was lambasted by a questioner for his supposed military mindset in knocking back ISIS recruiters and there's still a very strong anti-authoritarian element at the show.

That's perfectly understandable, given how many hackers have been persecuted by law enforcement for very minor crimes. The hanging shadow of Aaron Swartz and his fate still gets people justifiably angry.

There's also a lot of resistance to corporate America. One Seattle recruiter bemoaned the fact that "these people" could get great jobs in industry if they would only straighten out their act a little, get a haircut, and try to sell themselves a little more.

What he missed is that for a lot of attendees, doing that kind of a career path isn't remotely interesting to them. As long as they have a place to crash, an internet connection, and enough money to keep the wolf from the door, they are perfectly happy doing what they love without having to worry about performance reviews or dress codes.

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