Geek Cr3d: DEF CON 20 from the n00b
Jessica was that kid you hated in school: total know-it-all, straight-A student, teacher’s pet. But all that geekery served her well as she’s now an electrical engineer at Parallax Inc. bringing microcontroller and robotics lessons to classrooms around the world. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for electronics know-how, she’s your gal and in her ongoing series Geek Cr3d – she’ll show you how!
It’s been over two weeks since DEF CON ended, and in many ways I feel I’m still recovering. First, you have the initial exhaustion of running around at a four day event with an average of 4-6 hours of sleep. Then there’s the continuing exhaustion of getting bio-hacked and returning with the flu. And finally, there’s the overwhelmingly empty feeling you get after being surrounded by incredibly passionate and intelligent people.
I’ve heard it said that it’s impossible to explain what DEF CON is like to those who have never attended. So, this article ends here.
I believe the best way to describe DEF CON is ‘anarchy with an advanced IQ’. Simply put, there are so many different talks, competitions, projects and parties going on all at once, and you’ll never know where or when you’ll come across most of them. It’s essentially a constant overload of awesome.
While I had always been interested in DEF CON, I would always pass on it every year because I didn’t consider myself as a “computer hacker”. Sure, I know the basics of password hacking techniques and did consider getting my masters in digital forensics, but I am more closer to the n00b side of the scale when compared to others at the conference. So I always sat out, too afraid that I wouldn’t have a place there and/or would get majorily pwned.
Upon arrival, the first thing I realized was that my past fears were completely unwarranted. On the whole, the DEF CON community is incredibly friendly and welcoming. Not to mention, there’s a whole lot more than computer hacking going on – there’s an entire community of hardware hackers with a room full of soldering irons and miscellaneous parts.
Not that my fears of being pwned were completely unfounded. It’s common knowledge to not use the ATMs in the hotel the event is held in as they are almost immediately hacked. (Rumor has it that one year they found no less than six network splices on one ATM in the hotel.) It’s also a good idea to go completely off-the-grid. Which to me seemed a little paranoid before the event but after hearing horror stories and having a friend who got hacked I realized that I don’t think there is such a thing as “too paranoid” at DEF CON. Although, it was very strange to have my iPhone only be able to make calls and send text messages.
Now I would be remiss if I failed to mention how awesome the badges were this year. Of course, I may be a little biased as I work for Parallax and we manufactured them. For those new to DEF CON, the badges are really the heart of the conference. They not only served as an attendees’ credentials but also contained clues to participate and solve the badge challenge. Since I had a sneak peek at the badge firmware, it was incredibly entertaining to eavesdrop in groups as they tried to unlock the board’s mysteries.
A personal favorite section of mine was DEF CON Kids, but that could be because I have a soft spot for inspiring the younger generation to pursue technical fields. I had the pleasure this year of helping Joe Grand with his learn to solder session, and it was a lot of fun! These kids were unlike any I had worked with before: astonishingly polite, talented, and bright. Some even stuck behind after to solder additional parts onto their badges and it was incredibly rewarding to see that they not only learned something, but also wanted to learn more.
As for the ‘seedier side’ of DEF CON, females have been known to have issues with inappropriate remarks and gestures made by members of the male populace. In fact, before I went I was warned that I was going to get raped. However, I found this to be wildly untrue. The most offensive comment made to me was ‘you look hot’ in response to my circuit board leggings (which, incidentally, earned me my hacker handle – femb0t). Granted I did travel with a couple of male companions and did have a fair share of puppy dogs, pick-up-lines and blowhards, but it wasn’t any worse than an average night at a bar.
The main thing to be wary of is the blowhard. They can eat up your night in an instant if, like me, you’re too polite to tell them to eff-off. There was one guy who not only was a massive ‘personal space’ violator but also spoke so intensely that I never found an opportunity to break out of the conversation. As such I ended up speaking with him for over an hour! Do not fret, this did come with some good stories. Not only was this guy the inventor of the OLED, LCD, and DVD player, he also saved the entire world from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. We were just days away from the end of the world, he made some calls, suggested the cooling system solution and SAVED US ALL!
Sadly, he had also just lost a patent for a dual-view 3D television the week prior. Never mind that it was already a product Samsung demoed at CES in January.
The real value in DEF CON is simply meeting people. I learned so much just by conversing with strangers over a beer. You never know who you’re talking to or what opportunity will crop up. One of the most interesting people I met was Johnny Long from hackersforcharity.com. He’s moved to Uganda to develop hackerspaces and technology in the developing world. To me, that’s incredibly amazing and inspirational and made me want to help in any way that I could, and I may not have learned about the program otherwise.
If you have never attended DEF CON before and have any interest in hacking, engineering or other technical arenas, I highly suggest you go. Despite being exhausted, I left DEF CON feeling inspired, giddy and thirsty for more knowledge. I’ll certainly be going back next year – Parallax or no.