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Aladdin Hotel

Jeff Moss

Jeff Moss

Fear and Hacking in Las Vegas

by Joel Deane  July 22, 1997

Part One: Friday

Within a few hours of arriving, the pranks are underway. Passing counterfeit $1 and $20 notes, spotting federal agents, selling contraband merchandise like the perennially popular "Microshit" T-shirt, hacking the hotel phone system until it surrenders free calls.

"The phone system has lost," one hacker gleefully pronounces.

"This year we have got a lot of Federal attention."

-- Def Con's Jeff Moss

Welcome to Def Con Five, the biggest hacker conference in the United States-- a three day network-gamble-drink-athon at the Aladdin Hotel Casino, right in the dusty heart of Sin City's Las Vegas Boulevard.

Like most conventions, Def Con's opening morning is all about lines; as in standing in 'em. Stand in line at the airport baggage check... stand in line at the taxi rank... stand in line at the hotel check-in... stand in line at the registration....

By now it's pushing midday and, speaking for myself, I'm in no mood to discuss the finer points of social engineering. For courage, I buy myself a mega-margarita-- a stiff concoction in a half-yard glass that tastes like a Tequila Slurpie-- and, with a wistful look toward the blackjack tables, slouch into Def Con's ostentatious convention room-- which looks like it was decorated by Ricardo Montalban.

Sure, its motto is "Your wish is our command," and, yeah, some woman dressed like Barbara Eden out of I Dream of Jeannie is wandering around the slot machines, but that doesn't alter the fact that the Aladdin's a dump.

Now is as good a time as any to discuss the finer points of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino. Sure, its motto is "Your wish is our command," and, yeah, some woman dressed like Barbara Eden out of I Dream of Jeannie is wandering around the slot machines, but that doesn't alter the fact that this joint's a dump-- a gold and maroon safari suit compared to the fluorescent Lycra of the strip's newer, Disneyland-like attractions. The security guards have no trouble picking the hackerfest participants out from the Aladdin's regular crowd-- families, retired couples, country music fans. I'm stopped more than once by baffled guards, six-shooters strapped to their thighs, wanting to know just what this Def Con thing's all about.

"Hacking," I reply.

Blank expressions.

"Computer hacking," I expound.

One of the guards, a woman, nods. I've made contact. I plunge on and say, "So now you know what hackers look like"-- and we're back to the blank looks.

Then again, the convention goers-- henceforth to be known as Defheads-- don't seem to care. Now that they've registered, most of the Defheads roam around the Ricardo Room, buying up every black Def Con Five T-shirt they can lay their hands on. The Def Con mugs and baseball caps are also steady sellers. There's a couple of book stalls, too, pushing titles like How to Get Anything on Anybody and The Encyclopedia of Personal Surveillance. Not to mention the trash-and-treasure stall of cellular phones-- going cheap at $10 a pop-- and telephony paraphernalia up on the stage.

Slurping on my mega-margarita, I shuffle past the stalls, but am more interested in the geeks than the gear.

They are not what I expected, these Defheads. They're much too diverse a group to pigeonhole. Sitting in the corner, on the Fantasy Island carpet, are what looks like a bunch of computer nerds: pale fingers clicking away at their laptops. Over there, complete with dyed black hair, are some computer goths. Clean-cut, wearing running shoes, reading newspapers: those two twentysomethings are either lost jocks or Feds, I'll wager. And there, by the booth with the Buddha-sized bust of Mr. T, we're talking genuine cyberpunks, folks. Ages range from teenagers to gray-beards, hair styles range from hippie to hoodlum, fashion sense ranges from black T-shirts to, well, white T-shirts. What most Defheads have most in common is that they are male and they are white. There are a few minorities in attendance, and a noticeable contingent of women, but Def Con is, by and large, a boy thing.

Yeddish Monoxide, a 16-year-old first-time Defhead from New Mexico, is here to learn. "I heard about all the stuff that they do. All the seminars," he says.

Monoxide, who works in computer sales, skipped town without his parents permission to come to Def Con. He says he doesn't consider himself a hacker-- yet. "I am not good enough," he says. "I still have a long way to go. I would like to become that good because there's money in it."

With about 1,000 attendees, Jeff Moss, organizer of this and the four previous hackerfests, says this Def Con is the biggest yet. Milling around with the teenage wannabe Kevin Poulsens is the real thing: elite hackers like Mudge, able to find a hole in just about any software or system, and crypto-czars like Bruce Schneier, author of Applied Cryptography. And don't forget those Feds.

"This year we have got a lot of Federal attention. Federal agents, people from the military," says Moss, a 27-year-old computer security expert.

And what about the rest of the Defheads? "I would say 30, 40 percent are hangers-on that want to learn," he says. "Probably 10 percent are groupies that just like to be around people. And the rest are probably genuinely in the industry or professionals."

Lucky for my mega-margarita soaked brain, the only action this afternoon is a talk by James Jorasch on how the casinos cheat and how to beat the system. It's an interesting talk, sprinkled with anecdotes, but the most practical advice I glean is that it's good to talk to the dealer. Why? It slows the game, which means you get more free drinks for your gambling buck. (I'll be careful not to spend that advice all at once.)

This is Part One of a four-part series on Def Con.

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

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