Raucous applause filled the the large convention room inside Las Vegas’s Paris casino: the government had arrived.
Seated behind a table at the annual DEF CON conference in Las Vegas was Congressman Ted Lieu, and, joined by Rep. James Langevin of Rhode Island, he had come to ask a large crowd of hackers and security professionals for help. The once famously Fed-averse crowd was loving it.
But don’t get it twisted — DEF CON hadn’t gone soft. The mischievous and lawless side of this assemblage of the hacker community was out in full effect – assuming, that is, you knew where to look.
Inviting the Man to your party
You might not expect attendees at a convention notorious for casino hacks, phreaked elevators, and literal tin-foil hats to embrace any authority figure — let alone those aligned with law enforcement — and for much of DEF CON’s history that assumption would have been largely correct. That’s not so true anymore.
Event attendees and organizers have mostly shed their overtly antagonistic attitudes toward the U.S. government and its officials. So much so, in fact, that the Department of Homeland Security has even sent representatives to present at DEF CON.
This year’s conference, which ran from Aug. 8 – 11, was no different. In addition to Lieu and Langevin, Senator Ron Wyden attended and spoke about privacy. The government and the hackers, it seems, had become buddy buddy.
However, walking the floor of the four casinos playing host to this year’s DEF CON provided a stark reminder that attendees haven’t given up on wreaking a little playful havoc.
Things often go badly in Las Vegas, but typically on the receiving end of that pain are the tourists — not the casinos and businesses that thrive off extracting every ounce of possible value from the wide-eyed visitor.
One of DEF CON’s undeniable charms is that it reliably flips that script.
In Planet Hollywood, for example, someone took the time to hack a Tipsy Robot drink kiosk.
When we swung by to check it out, many of the ordering tablets were knocked offline. One man, wearing a DEF CON badge, got chased out of the bar by an employee — all for, as the former claimed, “looking at the TOS.”
Other casinos surrounding the convention were home to a surprising amount of malfunctioning digital slot machines.
Low-tech methods of dissent were also employed. Stickers seemingly mocking Vegas’s all-seeing surveillance cameras showed up everywhere across the Strip.
And, well, a lot of digital things just kind of seemed to break — a telltale sign that hackers are in town.
This, of course, doesn’t even touch on the untold number of official convention talks providing detailed explanations of how to stick it to the Digital Man.
In other words, DEF CON still has it.
Having just wrapped its 27th year, the conference has clearly grown from its early, more freewheeling days. You’re more likely to run into someone working to secure elections than to subvert them.
Thankfully, however, that doesn’t mean DEF CON has lost its troublemaking spark. On the contrary, if this year’s DEF CON was any indication, the troublemaking is just getting started. Assuming the entire conference isn’t canceled, that is.