Pranks, Parties and Personalities
LAS VEGAS, July 28 -- The Michael Lynn Cisco-gate controversy has somewhat overshadowed everything else going on here at Black Hat, and I've been spending so much time getting to the bottom of the whole ordeal that I haven't had time to give readers a sense of just how fascinating this gathering is.
Of course, the real interesting stuff is the people here. The other night I attended a party for Black Hat speakers and selected guests at a penthouse suite that was nothing short of breathtaking for its decor and views of the entire Strip. Inside the glass-enclosed room where all the smokers were holed up, I found a bearded, Pall Mall-chain-puffing, disheveled gentleman who looked older than God. Since 80 to 90 percent of the people here appear to be security professionals in the under 30-set, I was immediately intrigued by his presence.
Turns out the guy was none other than Robert Morris, former chief scientist at the National Security Agency. (There are more people attending this conference from 3-letter agencies that you can shake a stick at. The guy I sat next to on the plane was a "telecommunications expert" with the CIA.) Morris seemed like he'd had a few drinks and kept going on about how companies who fail to encrypt their customer data should be taken out and shot.
This guy has probably has forgotten more about Internet security and uber-secret computer stuff than most of the conference attendees combined have ever learned, and I would've sat there all night and listened to his field stories of 25 years in the world's most secretive spy agency had his handlers not abruptly pulled him away to talk with someone more important. (By the way, Morris's son, Robert Jr., was the guy responsible for writing and releasing in 1988 what later became known as the Morris Worm, widely considered the first computer worm to grip the Web. Morris released the worm from networks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is now an associate professor.)
Sure, people learn stuff at Black Hat, but anyone who's honest will tell you the real reason they return each year is for the insanely lavish parties. Last night's rager, sponsored by 3Com's Tipping Point, was at a club at the Hard Rock hotel; despite what you may have heard, hackers really can cut a rug when pumped with enough thumping bass and alcohol and obscured enough by fog machines. The buzz today is all about Microsoft's party being held at Pure, one of those velvet-rope clubs that brags of having the most expensive drinks in Vegas. Pure was recently
listed as No. 1 on E! Entertainment's "20 Hippest Hotspots." But hey, if anyone can afford a bar tab like that, it's Microsoft.
Yesterday, some prankster pulled the Caesar's Palace fire alarm, but nobody so much as flinched even though the hotel intercom was urging people to immediately flee to the nearest exits. Apparently this happens at least once every year at Black Hat, and several times a day at DefCon. I sincerely hope that there isn't a real fire emergency because every one of us would surely perish in the smoke and flames.
When I first arrived at Caesar's, I kept wondering why so many people were lurking by the windows and staring down upon the plaza. I soon discovered that the topless swimming pool is situated directly below the conference level.
Overall, I have been tremendously impressed with the professionalism and integrity of the conference organizers and attendees. You would be hard-pressed to find a group of individuals who care more about Internet and computer security. And the hotel staff here is the most helpful and jovial bunch I've seen since staying at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Fla. The waiters and waitresses serving lunch in the staggeringly massive and hectic dining hall here seem straight out of a vaudeville sketch, popping in at either side of me every few minutes and threatening to withhold my caffeine fix until I eat my veggies.
I've been told several times that the real colorful stuff happens at DefCon, which starts tomorrow and runs through Sunday evening. It seems that each year some miscreants manage to hack one of the Microsoft Windows computers that operate the towering electronic billboards here in Vegas, replacing ads with either a "Blue Screen of Death" or just a shout-out to their buddies. I'm secretly hoping something like that happens, if for no other reason that to give me another excuse to use this camera I've brought with me and add some more color to this blog.
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