Fear and Hacking in Las Vegas
by Joel Deane
July 24, 1997
Part Three: Saturday
Something is seriously amiss. I've been in Las Vegas more than 24 hours and I haven't spent a dime gambling.
Last night, after Hacker Jeopardy, I walked the Las Vegas strip-- up as far as Treasure Island, down as far as Excalibur. I didn't bother with the Luxor, not this time. I stayed in that glass pyramid during my previous Vegas excursion: visiting the genuine recreation of Tutankhamen's tomb, buried deep beneath the gaming room floor; riding up and down the inclinator (a backwards elevator) until I thought I was going to throw up. It was fun, sure, but that was 1995-- before New York New York, before Monte Carlo, before the Stratosphere. Get the picture? The Luxor is last summer's attraction.
So far as being box office draws, these extravaganzas of casinos have the shelf life of Speed 2. As soon as the newest, latest, hottest casino opens, it falls under the shadow of another construction site; its days numbered as the hot ticket in town. You like New York New York? Then wait until you caste your eyes upon Paris! Dazzled by the replica Statue of Liberty? Then you'll be thrilled by our fiberglass Eiffel Tower! Coming soon!
What is it with Vegas? The town used to be the home of wise guys, of practitioners of martini-cool like Sinatra and Co. Now it's a theme park-- Disneyland with topless dancers.
Walking Las Vegas Boulevard. last night, the strip had no sense of danger. It was all families and couples and tourists and footloose convention-goers. People were meandering past the Mirage waiting for the volcano to erupt or for the sea battle on the sidewalk outside Treasure Island; bathing in the lights of the giant Siegfried and Roy sign. Everything is disarmingly surreal.
And that's Vegas: The way it calls to you with its gaudy fluorescence, $4.95 buffet meals and cheap rooms; sings siren songs-- i.e., classic rock covers-- via all those upholstered, blow-dried lounge acts; slowly unbuckles your money-belt until you lose all sense of gravity; then dashes you against the rocks of that free scotch you're drinking. Quite the seductress.
Some place for a hacker convention.
Jeff Moss, the event's organizer, has held every Def Con in Las Vegas. Why? Simple, he says. In War Games, when Matthew Broderick and the other teen hackers break into the Pentagon, the first place they try to nuke is Sin City. There's also a more pragmatic reason. Back in 1993, when the first conference was held, Moss wanted a warm, dry venue. That way, if no one turned up, he and his friends could at least sit around the pool and drink cocktails. In case you were wondering, Moss hails from a cool, wet part of these United States-- Seattle, Wash.
Up until now Def Con's enjoyed an underground existence in Vegas. It was small, not big-spending and largely anonymous-- at least until all the dudes with the laptops started parachuting in. Finding a venue has often been difficult for Moss.
None of the hotels that have hosted Def Con have asked the Defheads back. Moss, who has taken out loans to finance Def Con Five, insists those closed doors are not due to illegal activities undertaken during any conferences, but the casinos' hacker phobia. "I tend to play down the whole hacker thing when I'm looking for a hotel," he says, which partly explains the splendor of the Aladdin.
By the time I take the lift from my room on the 23rd floor to the ground floor (a quicker trip than expected, since the hotel skips floors one through 11), it's approaching 10 a.m. I just have time for a quick breakfast-- Belgian waffles-- before an eternal lineup of speakers.
Saturday at Def Con is D-Day. Now's when most of the action takes place. The next eight hours are a welter of speeches, tech sessions and shenanigans. The heavy-hitting speeches are in the Ricardo Room. There's the cyberpunk philosophy of Richard Thieme ("The smaller the ego and more manageable the ego, the more powerful [a hacker] you are")-- who sees humanity evolving by interacting with technology. Or the in-your-face approach ("There are 50,000 to 70,000 clueless hackers out there") of Ira Winkler, security expert and author of Corporate Espionage. Or the riveting sermon on the mount delivered by Bruce Schneier, revered author of Applied Cryptography: "The problem with bad cryptography is it looks just like good cryptography... The Internet is different because these (hacking) tools can be automated and propagated... Someone can have a website-- 'Click here to destroy the Internet.' That's possible to do. That's scary... It's going to get worse before it gets better... We are going to see voting on the Net within our lifetime..."
And what is the upshot of all these speakers? Methinks the hackers are not as countercultural as they are perceived. Granted, many of these folks are libertarians-- believers in the mythology of the American frontier, that place where men (and only men) were allowed to carve out a new world for themselves, free from regulation and governmental constraints. And, like many netizens, hackers see the Internet as an electronic frontier, a brave new world, a virtual Plymouth Rock-- a wilderness that should be kept from the hands of Big Brother. But, as the evolution of corporatus hackerexus attests, these Defheads are also, by and large, quintessentially American.
Again and again, in speeches and conversations, many Defheads exhibited: a) an acute awareness of the United States' dominance in the information technology field, b) a concern that that dominance not be lost through digital theft or corporate espionage and c) generally, a grudging acceptance that someone (so why not the FBI?) needs to safeguard the United States from computer terrorists. That doesn't mean these characters won't indulge in the occasional "hack Netscape" competition or debate the FBI's methods or merrily pirate, say, Microsoft's Office 97. As Bruce Schneier says, he's not worried if someone hacks a computer system, but he is worried if someone destroys the economy.
What irks many Defheads is that the broader community confuses hacking-- as in the kind that is basically a pursuit of knowledge-- with digital criminals. Far from outlaws, these hackers see themselves as part of Richard Thieme's techno-evolution. By finding holes in computer and phone networks, they are improving those systems, making them stronger. When you look at it that way, the hackers finding faults in the system's monolithic, yet fragile, information infrastructure are agents of progress, and thus thoroughly American.
While the speeches continue, there's fun to be had in the auxiliary rooms. More books, such as Secrets of a Superhacker, are for sale, and, after some technical hiccups, the Capture the Flag contest is well underway. Packed around fold-up tables, camped on the carpet with their laptops, teams of hackers are beavering away-- trying to either capture or defend one of five operating systems. Spot the Fed has to be the game of the day, though, especially since Defheads who ID any law enforcement or military personnel win a "I Spotted the Fed" T-shirt.
By the end of the day, though, I'm brain dead. After sitting through all those speeches, I feel like a clubbed seal-- and there's still another late-night round of Hacker Jeopardy to go. Hoping for a bit of R&R, I dash upstairs, change into my bathers and scoot back down to the 12th floor-- hoping to cram in a quick swim before this evening's activities.
Outside, on the roof, the concrete feels like a Teflon frying pan beneath my bare feet. I run through the shimmering heat, already sweating, reach the pool-- but stop dead. Despite the heat, despite daylight savings, despite my blistering feet, The Aladdin, in its wisdom, has decreed the pool closed as of 6 pm. It's 6:05 pm.
Disgruntled, I trudge back upstairs, stand under a feeble shower and change into a black double-breasted suit and dark shirt. Tonight's supposed to be black evening wear night, but I doubt many Defheads will get out of their T-shirts.
Standing in front of the hall mirror, I look like some white trash grifter. That's OK. Whatever else happens tonight, I'm going to play me some blackjack.
This is Part Three of a four-part series on Def Con.
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