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Hackers invade Vegas
By Robert Lemos
July 11, 1997 5:15 PM PDT

Las Vegas -- In the sub-culture of computer hackers, the annual conclave - called DEF CON -- carries a unique badge of distinction: Each year the conference has managed to get itself barred from whatever hotel agreed to host it.

The infractions ranged from attempts to hack hotel security to the destruction of hotel property. With that sort of notoriety, the show's organizers may soon find it hard to hold future conferences here. In the meantime, however, many attendees say that renegade reputation suits them just fine.

DEF CON has become the premiere gathering place for computer hackers, network security consultants, and occasional low-profile law enforcement officials. And in between the face-to-face interaction on the show floor and at evening parties, DEF CON also serves as the offline social event of the year where the two-often clashing-parts of the Internet culture come together.

About half the attendees represent the hacker culture -- that is, the alternative-rock, body-modified, online-worshipping generation for whom the Internet is the real world.

"This is our Mecca," said one hacker with at least seven visible pierces and black-dyed hair that rose from his head like a pillar cast in polymer hair gel. Paranoia also runs deep; he would only comment on condition of complete anonymity.

The remaining half is evenly split between corporate network administrators and security consultants, most of whom are from the old guard of hackers -- with handles like Mudge, Hobbit, Dark Overload, and others. "These are the people doing the original work," said Ira Winkler, former director of technology for the National Computer Security Association. "There is a general feeling among (the old guard) that the new generation is just wannabees."

In an exclusive $1,000-a-head conference on network security -- dubbed the Black Hat conference -- held earlier in the week, quite a few of the corporate attendees as well as the old guard railed against, what is seen to be, undisciplined hackers. "Most of the participants in the Black Hat conference are not pleased with the newbies," said Adam Shostack, an independent network security consultant.

The difference: Experts like Mudge and Shostack are the ones who find the holes in systems and point them out to the companies who made the software. The newer hackers use tools created by the experts to crack the systems. The hacker culture looks to the Internet as a proving ground, while the old guard strive for an Internet that is as bug-free as possible.

Yet, the old guard needs the new hackers as much as they are needed for their programming skills. While companies are quick to issue bug fixes, system administrators are slow to implement them. The threat of hackers attempting to exploit holes in their systems make network administrators fill the holes that much quicker.

While this will never be an adequate court defense, many of the DEF CON attendees believe it to be explanation enough.

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