Defcon focus on the Fed comes with conflicting emotions

After my colleague Stephen Cobb stood in a huge line at Defcon waiting to get into the Friday keynote by NSA chief General Alexander, plus a swarm of interest shown at the two-part Meet the Fed panel presentation the next day, it’s becoming clear that multiple agencies of the federal government are focused on hackers, and vice versa. But to what end?

NSA at Defcon 20

There seems to be considerable effort underway to get aspiring hackers to take the straight and narrow path, maybe offering them a career path as a reward if they’re monetarily motivated (but not the kind of money that might land you in jail one day). That could be a good thing, helping hackers to one day move out of their mom’s basement and buy their own hacker cave/house to raise offspring. Yet there seem to be tensions in this Fed/Defcon connection.

Ever since the first “spot the Fed” contest at Defcon nearly two decades ago, there’s been a certain amount of unspoken intel work going on at this event; well, sometimes it’s spoken too, after all this IS Defcon, a haven for the hackerly unkempt celebrating hacker culture, which isn’t always sanitized for public consumption. Speaking of consumption, at Defcon it’s not considered socially unredeeming to feature beers on the podium as you present, and if people raise issues during your presentation, you can self-penalize by taking successive drinks. Some presentations gain more and more “flavor” in this way, especially as the day progresses. And more than one speaker has done presentations with voice hoarse from  doing who-knows-what the night before, so the lubrication can be helpful. Liquid penalties were also assessed this year for the use of cyber too many times in a presentation.

So, are the folks who feel at home at Defcon really going to blend in if they get an office at a federal agency? After all, the same event that hosted the head of the NSA also hosted a seemingly credible panel on the large-scale, warrant-less wire-tapping that the agency is accused of carrying out, including the person widely-acknowledged as being the world’s leading expert on the NSA, James Bamford.  There’s always been a sort of pseudo-spy sensibility to Defcon, but also a keen interest in protecting privacy. Now the Fed is here recruiting, we’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, I can report that NSA’s booth space was heavily frequented, so at least the dialog is out in the open. After all, if Shawn Henry’s talk at Blackhat was a foreshadowing of things to come, various federal entities, from the army to the FBI, are VERY interested in talking to hackers, with or without the neon spray-painted mohawk they got at Defcon at the MohawkCon booth (where you can design your own mohawk variation that they install on the spot – very hacker vogue). But in the spy vs. spy world, hackers – even with dubiously constructed mohawks – are taking center stage.

Author Cameron Camp, ESET

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