Fear and Hacking in Las Vegas
by Joel Deane
July 23, 1997
Part Two: Friday Night
"I am the only cypherpunk in Las Vegas."
So says Las Vegan Steve Schear.
It's early Friday evening, the cocktail hour, and I'm propped at one of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino's garish bars with Schear and two other corporate hackers-- Adam Shostack and Sameer Parekh. Contrary to the media image of hackers being pimple-faced adolescents, these three are business-card toting grown-ups. In many respects, they represent the post-War Games evolution of the hacker.
Sure, back in the early and mid-80s, the likes of Steve, Adam and Sameer might have dreamed of doing a Matthew Broderick and hacking the Pentagon. These days, though, many twenty- and thirtysomething hackers have gone legit-- cashing in their knowledge of computer software and networks to become security consultants, software developers and cryptographers. Thinking about it, hiring a hacker to safeguard does make sense: Who else would better how to build the most asbestos-like firewall?
Interestingly, none of these three call themselves hackers.
Schear's business card bills him as an "e-cash monger," Shostack's touts him as a "firewalls and security consultant," Parekh's simply states he is president of his own company. They might look more like overgrown college students than businessmen, but don't be fooled by the baggy shorts, anti-establishment attitude (Shostack's sporting a "Resistance is Futile" T-shirt with a picture of a Borg-like Bill Gates), long hair or (in Parekh's case) the kung-fu-master style goatee. Schear's company, First ECache, is developing anonymous electronic money which should be untraceable once it's left your virtual wallet-- he reckons the Feds hate it. Shostack, from Boston, Mass., sells his services to banks, hospitals and software companies-- auditing and beefing up electronic computer systems. Parekh's Oakland, Calif.-based company, C2Net, develops encryption software.
Shouting over the chorus of slot machines as they sip piña coladas from souvenir half-yard glasses-- I'm drinking a yeoman beer-- these corporate hackers all agree Def Con is more about play than work. "It's a fun party," says Shostack, who attended Def Con Three. Likewise, Parekh, a first-timer, says he came because "I knew it would be a fun party." And Schear? For him, it's a rare chance to rub shoulders with his colleagues.
Undeniably, networking-- that cornerstone of conferences-- also enters the equation. "The contacts that I have made here have led to things (consultancy work) later on," Shostack says. Parekh chimes in: "It's more networking-- hanging out with people who are in the same field. I don't expect I will pick up lots of info, but I will meet people."
In that respect, Def Con's not so different from another get together being held in the Aladdin: the Tele-Sales conference.
That's right. In one of life's little ironies, while the black T-shirt brigade mulls over Zen and the art of hacking in the Ricardo Room, across the hall in the Herve Villechaize Memorial Suite the perm and padded shoulder set are discussing capitalism and the art of making a buck online. The Tele-Sales crowd seem mildly perplexed by the Defheads. Neatly attired in Friday-casual wear, and with a far larger contingent of women, these salespeople gather in small groups to observe the passing parade of nose-rings and ponytails. I try to stray into one of the Tele-Sales group sessions, but am lassoed by a Tele-Sales cowboy (complete with 10-gallon hat and boots) and herded away.
Back to the bar. As the mega-margaritas subside, conversation turns to the malicious hackers and, you guessed it, the FBI. Shostack says one of the reasons for hacking's roguish reputation is the public's failure to differentiate between knowledge-seeking hackers (only out to learn about and play with systems) and malicious hackers (out to crash sites, systems and maybe even the Internet). According to Shostack, there are at least six ways a malicious hacker could crash "large chunks" of the Net.
Parekh agrees. "We are lucky that people who have gotten on the Net and have the ability are not sociopaths," he says, which brings us to the FBI.
Personal relations between the conference's hackers and law enforcement seem relatively friendly. Feeling technically-- and possibly intellectually-- superior, some hackers, such as Se7en, from Berkeley, Calif., talk of individual G-men in an offhand, parental manner. That said, hackers still consider that the Bureau is Big Brother's lifeguard-- watching the pool that is the Internet, ready to expel any swimmer caught using an unorthodox stroke. Instead of taking it out on individual agents, though, most Defheads seem content to rail against the institution and FBI director Louis J. Freeh.
"The ironic situation is that the FBI Computer Crime Squad is talking about how terrorists can shut down the Internet and do all these things, but at the same time the FBI wants to outlaw what would safeguard it," says Parekh, referring to Freeh's crusade against full-strength encryption.
"Louis Freeh came up through the ranks by wiretapping the mafia," Shostack says. "He's afraid of losing it."
This is Jeopardy!
By the time the piña coladas are history, it's 8:45 p.m.-- time to head back to the Ricardo Room. I've been up since 5 this morning-- a hellish hour for a nocturnal type-- and, with a belly full of mega-margarita and beer, am beginning to fade. Still, I troop into the Ricardo Room with all the Defheads, many of whom are already wearing their Def Con caps and T-shirts.
Inside the Ricardo Room, the night's first event-- the drinking game-- is underway. As the name suggests, the drinking game is all about getting drunk. A panel of hackers, armed with cocktails in half-yard glasses, sit on the stage. The host, Mudge, roams around with a microphone, fielding questions from the audience. What sort of questions? The more technically arcane the better. In fact, the more technical the question, the more the panel of contestants has to drink. Needless to say, the more celebrated questions sounded like people speaking in tongues to this technical luddite.
The crowd is well-oiled by the time the night's big event-- Hacker Jeopardy-- rolls around. An Alex Trebek look-alike (well, maybe not a look-alike, but the host did wear a suit and mustache) took over the stage, along with four teams of contestants. The format was much like the TV show-- only here the categories were Hacking, We Still Hate Cyberflicks, Busts, Some Net Security, Aliens Among Us and This Is Jeopardy.
With prizes ranging from free software to motherboards up for grabs, the contestants and crowd got into the swing of the occasion-- climbing over each other to provide the correct answer to questions like "The day, month and year the aliens visited Roswell."
I bet some Tele-Sales types are asking themselves similar questions about extraterrestrials in the Aladdin right about now.
This is Part Two of a four-part series on Def Con.
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