The Wendy Report: Hackers in Vegas

by Wendy Murdock, copyright 1995

Las Vegas reminds me of the crystal-growing kits we experimented with in 4th grade science class. There is something beautiful and unnatural about the city -- simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. For those very reasons, it seemed fitting that Las Vegas is where Def Con II was held.

Def Con is an annual gathering of hackers, crackers, phreakers and other characters who hang out in the world of the "computer underground". This is the second year they have begged, borrowed and perhaps stolen methods of transport to trek their way across the heated wastelands to meet with other geekoids and stay up all night chugging various caffeinated beverages, beer, and thinking of new ways to stir up trouble.

I spent some time wandering around the Sahara hotel looking for convention registration. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a sign that read, "Seminar in Gynecological Laproscopy" with an arrow pointing in the direction of a group of lanky young males dressed in T-shirts and jeans. They all had the rounded-shoulders posture which is the tell-tale indication that they have spent their formative years hunched over a keyboard while their bodies solidified to a mature state.

As people roamed past, the hackers' gazes were inquisitive, mischievous. There was surface tension, a slow-boiling anticipation that something was going to happen and they almost couldn't wait. Their eyes darted back and forth in a shifty manner, looking for federal agents, for friends, for an opportunity to be out of the ordinary. These hackers were, for one weekend, stepping out from behind their monitors and allowing themselves to be seen while wearing I.D. badges that never revealed their true names or allowed you to sneak a peek at who they really are. In some cases, it was irrational paranoia; in most cases it was mere self-importance. In a few cases, I am sure it was completely justifiable; I did run across some pretty shady characters.

One fellow who caught my eye was wearing a striking red and black tartan skirt and T-shirt ensemble that it's safe to say was not picked out by his mother. The second thing I noticed was that various parts of his body had been pierced, out of which were hanging shiny metallic ornaments of various shapes and sizes. He was decked out with multiple electronic doo-dads that would occasionally emit squawking noises or garbled male voices. He showed me the entire setup and said he was monitoring the hotel security because "I like to know what they are saying about us."

His nametag read "A.J. Reznor" and he looked hardened, eagle-eyed and stern, but when he spoke his voice was gentle. He was open about his ideas and clear on where he stood with regard to hacker morality. A.J. admitted to "redboxing" -- using a device to fool payphones into thinking you have dropped coins in the slot -- but said he only did it because the phone company rips people off by making calls cost 20 cents and not giving change when everyone pays a quarter. But he draws the line when it comes to harming the individual. "I do have morals, you know," he admitted as we found an empty corner where we could whisper conspiratorially.

What won't A.J. Reznor do? He won't dig in a dumpster and snarf your credit card receipts and order two hundred dollars worth of color-coordinated pajamas from L.L. Bean. He won't hack your cellular phone. He is not a petty thief who wants to rip off his fellow man. To him, it's a matter of principle, the common man against The Corporation and The Feds -- a battle to be won with technical skill and political subversion.

And that's why A.J. is an electronic nomad. He has a home, but nobody knows where it is. He won't give out his phone number, but will allow you to reach him by pager. He runs a BBS, but does it under an assumed name using the telephone of a friend. He can make phone calls from his truck and communicate via ham radio. This is a man prepared to be on the run, if it comes to that. It certainly gives one something to think about. Previous to the conference, my idea of being prepared was having a roll of breath mints and some wet-wipes in my purse.

I've spent a great deal of time on the fringe of the Underground lurking on BBSs where crackers discuss raids to secure access to the superuser account, where phreakers tell how to make thousands of dollars worth of overseas phone calls for free, and where talk inevitably leads to the topic of revenge and sometimes murder. From other parts of the Net I have learned how simple it is to forge electronic mail, to pick locks, and to make napalm from ingredients that I have in my possession right this very minute.

Considering how easy it is to whip up small explosives in one's spare time, wrap them in beautiful shiny paper, tie them with curly ribbon and deliver them to the latest object of one's psychosis, it relieves me to know that most people still retain possession of all their mental faculties and animal impulses.

When I think about the simplicity of physical and virtual terrorism, it's obvious to see why federal agents would be present at Def Con II. Still, most of the people I met at the conference were fresh-faced and eager and would probably do nothing worse than read all the X-rated material on your Unix account or perhaps forge bizarre *write* messages from God telling you He knows what you do when the lights go out. But you never know who is going to get a Lex Luthor complex and try to blow up a small country -- or worse, take over the Net.

So, I'm scanning the room for interesting people when a harried-looking redhead zips past me, franticallly searching for something. She hurries past twice and finally grabs a surprised looking man and starts whispering in his ear, her eyes darting around, settling on me as I look around innocently, pretending not to notice. They shuffle their little huddle over to another man who is standing with his hands shoved deep in his pockets and the redhead begins pointing at someone in the crowd who, by this time, is sitting listening to Phil Zimmerman give a speech on his PGP encryption software. The huddle breaks up and the redhead sits fidgeting in a seat near an outer aisle.

What was all the fuss about? There was a "Spot the Fed" contest and a victim had been found. Evidently the woman overheard this alleged agent say, "..they've already caught one of our guys..." and that's when she pounced, calling her witnesses together for an impromptu vote on whether they thought this man was a real live Fed.

Now, I have to admit, the guy did stand out. When you are in a large group of people, the majority of which are males 18-25 wearing T-shirts and jeans with more rips than fabric, it's sometimes hard to blend. Especially when you are a Polo-shirt-and-loafer-wearing man who is several years past his prime.

The first chance I got, I cornered this alleged Fed. He claimed that his name was Jonathon and he spent much of our chat trying to fob me off onto his sidekick, Fred. Both men denied they were associated with the FBI, but were vague about what they actually do -- something to do with computer security. (Did you say national security?) Jonathon looked like the adventure-worn Harrison Ford type who could easily hurtle over bench seats in the airport while chasing fleeing criminals. By coincidence, when I asked how he kept in such great shape for a man of his age, he said, "Running through airports with a heavy briefcase." A heavy briefcase. Loaded with heavy sidearms, perhaps. But there were no conspicuous gun-shaped bulges showing under his Polo shirt. This is not to say that he did not have a pocket full of lethal throwing stars or a tiny Derringer strapped to his leg.

Fred was a curiosity as well. He reminded me of Clark Kent. I couldn't see him sitting behind a computer all day. Muscle-bound, tanned with a handsome yet boyish face, Fred wore glasses and looked at any moment as if he might dash into a nearby phone booth and emerge wearing a nifty little Speedo guaranteeing the appraising glance of any woman within half a city block. When I asked him what he did to stay in such top physical form (enquiring minds want to know) he pointed to Jonathon and said, "Chasing him through airports." It was obvious to me that I wasn't getting enough frequent flyer miles.

Federal agents or not, they were awarded "I am the Fed" T-shirts and the redhead with the keen eye got a shirt that said "I spotted the Fed".

The other bit of government buzz surrounded two men who were rumored to be with the NSA. One, a soft, doughy-looking fellow, loudly denied the accusation in that I-am-really-not-with-the-NSA-but-I'd-like-you-to-think-I-am tone in his voice. He wouldn't tell anyone his name and was mimicing marginally suspicious behavior, but after a bit of snooping I uncovered that he was actually with American Express Corporate Security. The other guy claimed to be with the NSA and that admission immediately made everyone ignore him, because what goofball would actually admit such a thing? A goofball with a clever ruse, I suppose. I think they were both in it for the free T-shirt.

There was a great deal of posing during Def Con. There were hackers pretending to be innocent of wrong-doing. There were lamers (pseudo-hackers) pretending to be guilty of something. There were federal agents pretending to be businessmen and businessmen who were Fed-wannabes. It makes me wonder exactly how boring everyone's lives are during the rest of the week. It reminded me of a Charlie Chan movie in which everyone is locked in a room and through the course of events it becomes clear that nobody is who they seem to be.

It's obvious what Def Con was about; it's a part of the frantic quest for Information, this decade's precious commodity. The hackers want it, and the government and corporations don't want them to have it. Knowledge is power, and the men in suits consider forking over information similar to letting your teenage son have the keys to the Porshe while you are gone for the weekend.

Def Con represents the tug-of-war that has always been present -- people strive to get that which is just out of reach, aggravating governments and breaking rules in the process. The appeal here is the controversy itself. A hacker's goal is to create a stir, to wreak havoc within the Establishment and half-heartedly attempt to wrestle power from the hands of the few who wield it. Once the goal is achieved, it's time to find a new cause for which to fight.

As I left Def Con, I was weaving my way through the casino crowds and happened to bump into A.J. Rezner who stood out even amid the sequins and neon lights. To me, A.J. represents the dichotomy of the hacker who wants to make his mark on the world, yet retain his precious anonymity.

I turned to wave to him as he walked backwards away from me, grinning manically -- an electronic cowboy walking into the garish and unnatural neon sunset and somehow blending in seamlessly. He lifted his hand in a brief salute, then disappeared into the crowd -- a trick he and the other hackers are making the habit of a lifetime.