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Talking With the Dark Tangent

LAS VEGAS, Aug. 1 -- Security Fix recently caught up with Jeff Moss -- a.ka. "Dark Tangent" -- the founder of Defcon and Black Hat, the two enormous hacker conventions that take place in Las Vegas each summer.

Jeff Moss
Jeff Moss says the success of his Black Hat and Defcon hacker gatherings is akin "to the rock-and-roll counterculture revolution." (Image courtesy Defcon.com; yes, that's the Grand Canyon in the background)

Defcon wasn't always a big deal. It began in 1993, when Moss was operating the major U.S. hub of "Platinum Net," an online social network of computer and phone hackers based out of Canada. With a major portion of the network set to go offline, Moss was helping to plan a last hurrah bash for all the departing Platinum Net users when, out of the blue, the main Canadian organizer abruptly split town.

Left in charge of organizing the gathering, Moss decided to call it "Defcon" and hold the party in Vegas -- in part as a nod to the genre-defining movie "War Games," in which the protagonist hacker takes the U.S military to defense condition 1, (hence "defcon") after selecting Vegas as the first primary target in a simulated Soviet nuclear strike.

"I was sort of left holding the bag, so I figured 'Hell, if I'm running it I can do what I want,'" Moss said. He invited everyone and anyone who frequented key hacker-centric online chat forums, and Defcon 1 was born.

Today, Defcon is by far the largest annual gathering of hackers in the United States. Moss said he expects between 5,000 and 6,000 people to attend Defcon 14 this year, but he has no real idea how many will show up, as most attendees are expected to register at the door for $100.

"We have no pre-registration for Defcon because that's something that could be subpoenaed," he said, referring to the potential for law-enforcement officials to attempt to trawl attendee lists for suspected criminal hackers.

After several years at the sprawling campus of the Alexis Park Hotel, Defcon is moving to new digs this year at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. Moss said space for presentations at Defcon 14 will be somewhat limited, but added that the conference has already booked additional space for next year's gathering. That's a welcome development for conference organizers, who have struggled through three different hotel managements in as many years at Alexis Park, each promising to create more conference space that never materialized.

"If we don't wreck the joint at the Riviera this year, we should get more space next year to do even more speaking tracks and hold breakout sessions," Moss said. As attendance has skyrocketed in recent years, organizers have felt pressured to add additional class tracks, challenges and other activities, he said. "It's one of those evolve-or-die type things. [Defcon would] stagnate if we didn't seize these kinds of opportunities to grow it."

It should be interesting to see how Defcon attendees get along with the rest of the hotel guests at the Riviera. In years past at Alexis Park, Defcon was able to reserve the entire hotel space for conference attendees. But there are no single floors or blocks of rooms at the Riviera dedicated solely to Defcon attendees, meaning partying hackers will be sandwiched between rooms of non-revelers.

Each time I mention to one of my security buddies that I'm staying in Vegas for Def/Hat, invariably the response I get back is, "Whatever you do, don't use the wireless networks there." Every year hackers manage to take complete control over the phone and Internet networks at the host hotel. On the first day of Defcon last year, someone had even taken complete control over the ATM in the hotel lobby. As such, I've brought travelers checks and a Verizon aircard to get my work done.

Moss created the Black Hat conferences in 1997 as an education and research-sharing forum security professionals and law enforcement. While that con also started out small, Moss he expects more than 3,000 people to attend this year's Black Hat.

With so many big name corporate sponsors (Microsoft is one of three top sponsors of Black Hat 2006 and an entire track is dedicated to talks from Microsoft officials on Thursday), Moss has taken his share of lumps from hackers who say the cons are more like "old hat" and that Moss has somehow "sold out" to big companies.

Moss is the first to admit that there is too much corporate involvement in the cons, but he said he believes that dynamic will never change. Moss likens the commercialization of the hacker conference world to the migration of the music industry over the years.

"I sometimes like to draw an analogy between the cons and the rock-and-roll counterculture revolution. At first, it was a bunch of bands playing out of their garages, and then the record labels got involved and pretty soon these guys were flying all over the country. As a whole, more people got to hear their music, but there is no doubt that the injection of big money changed the dynamic."

Last year's Black Hat was rocked by a scandal involving a presentation by security researcher Mike Lynn, who quit his job at Atlanta based Internet Security Systems Inc. so that he could give a presentation about dangerous security holes in Internet routers produced by Cisco Systems Inc. The two companies convinced Black Hat organizers to rip dozens of pages containing the details of Lynn's presentation from thousands of conference notebooks and initiated legal proceedings that threatened to land the both of them in jail.

This year's Black Hat is bringing up some familiar themes: Moss said at least two speakers already had to pull their talks because their respective employers objected to what was going to be revealed. But that doesn't mean there won't be any surprises.

"There will be some pretty big revelations this year," Moss said.

Stay tuned.

By washingtonpost.com Editors  |  August 1, 2006; 7:35 PM ET
Categories:  From the Bunker  
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