The EFF on the other hand...
If the Feds weren't welcome then the Electronic Frontier Foundation certainly is.
DEF CON donates a certain amount of conference revenues to the EFF, and this year the group got a $50,000 check from the organizers. In addition, its stall was crowded out with people willing to either give money outright or pay over the odds for EFF merchandise.
There was also an auction of rarish DEF CON and EFF gear to raise money for the group, which saw very high bids for what was ostensibly quite low-grade stuff. You could even get a mohawk haircut for a $10 donation to the group, although tipping the hairdressers was also considered polite.
Why is there such love for the EFF among the DEF CON crowd? Because the group is the nearest hackers have to a union; a body that fights for the rights of the tinkerer in the face of overwhelming odds.
The EFF got a shoutout in plenty of talks for the help it gives hackers. "Before presenting I checked in with the EFF for legal advice," was the reason many speakers gave. The EFF has a justified reputation for fighting for the right to hack responsibly, and it's an invaluable balancer to law enforcement overreach.
It's certainly true that the EFF isn't perfect – it takes a lot of money from corporate sponsors that some say make it ideologically corrupt. But the same is true for pretty much any lobbying group, political party, or religious organization.
Cory Doctorow's presentation on the EFF's fight to rid the world of DRM was an interesting case in point. While the crusade is going to be a difficult one (this hack thinks Satan will go to work on a snowplow before some businesses give up on DRM), you had to admire the spunk of the proposal.
Hackers are used to being on the margins, and some positively welcome the role. There are very few safety nets for them – no well-funded legal departments or political lobbying organization, apart from the EFF – and most attendees were happy to chuck in a few bucks for a group that has their back.
Let hackers be hackers
This individualistic streak, while frustrating for recruiters, is great news for computer security. These people don't do this primarily for a salary, they do it because they love it.
The type of attendee who is commonplace at DEF CON is all about the code, or the hardware, or understanding the brain and its motivation. Sure, a job pays the bills, but no one's going to work 20-hour days for months at a time just for a paycheck, outside of some of the more rabid startups.
They work because it isn't work; it's a labor of love and intellectual stimulation. The joy of finding out the unknown, the satisfaction of getting a really good hack sorted, or just the sheer pleasure of testing hardware and ideas to destruction.
It's an attitude typified by Jeff Moss, DEF CON's founder. Yes, he sold out Black Hat and retains a financial stake in the show, but not for the money. That just pays for all the other interesting things that can be done in the meantime.
That money will help ensure that DEF CON will remain the purest of mainstreamish tech conferences, and I suspect it will stay that way until Moss hangs up his hat. Long may the show continue. ®