Postcards from DEF CON 21

The world's most famous hacker conference, DEF CON celebrated its 21st year with 15,000 attendees, a no-Feds policy, Prism and Snowden themes, an official documentary and the usual subversive shenanigans.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

Last week, the 21st annual DEF CON hacker conference opened its doors to over 15,000 attendees - and when registration ran out of badges, they issued paper badges to the overflow crowd.

In a course reversal that caused controversy in and out of hacker communities, this year Federal agents were disinvited weeks before the conference.

See more photos and read much more about the activities, outrageous parties and more mischief at DEF CON 21 in:

The conference, with benefit parties and contests, raised over $100,000 for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Over $100,000 raised for the @EFF at #DEFCON this year! Woohoo!

— Tony Arcieri (@bascule) August 5, 2013

The Electronic Frontier Foundation had a popular table in DEF CON 21's vendor hall, and posed for this excellent action shot. This year, EFF had a new "Encryption is Key" t-shirt for DEF CON 21, which kept hackers obsessed long after the conference was over.



Hackers came to DEF CON from all over the world to hack, party, learn and connect in the world's most high-profile hacker conference, and attendees included all genders, age ranges, races, nationalities, orientations and diverse configurations, from classic nerds to families of all kinds. In my ten years of attending tech conferences, it was the highest ratio of women to men in attendance that I'd ever seen.

DEF CON's badges are always unique and complex, with a layered puzzle to solve. This year the 'playing card' badges were a non-electronic crypto challenge that featured mechanical watch movements, and some had hidden details that could only be seen when a bright light was shined through them.

I shot a large gallery of DEF CON 21's badges, seen in this Flickr set.

How to Hack Toyota and Prius cars

DEF CON's standing-room-only talks this year were certainly the car hacking talks. Security experts Charlie Miller, Christopher Valasek and Zoz demonstrated in different presentations how to hack electronics systems in cars such as those made by Ford and Toyota. The researchers demonstrated how to make the cars drive themselves.

Car hacking has been shown before - by remote demonstration, nit the hands-on teardown seen at this year's DEF CON - and was recently in UK headlines in regard to other researchers. But at DEF CON last weekend, the researchers showed exactly how it was done for the first time.

The researchers, like many hackers, expressed deep concern for public safety and frustration at the inaction, denial - and seeming indifference - shown by large companies to the issue. Before and after the DEF CON 21 demo, Toyota has refuted that such hacking and takeover was possible. Despite the fact that the researchers have submitted their white papers to the companies, and neither Ford or Toyota have committed to offering fixes.

The exasperated researchers feel that their discoveries pose a serious risk to consumers, and that it will be difficult to secure these systems.

Actor Will Smith's 15 minutes of DEF CON fame

The actor Will Smith showed up on DEF CON's last day with bodyguards, causing a lukewarm stir - not nearly as much interest as had an actor more closely connected to hacker culture. He told DEF CON attendees that he was there to research the way hackers talk and behave because he is readying to play a hacker "with a social engineering aspect" in an upcoming film.

Smith dropped in on a social engineering talk and briefly visited the vendor floor, staying at DEF CON for an estimated 20 minutes. The high-profile, loyal Scientology donor purchased two CD's of nerdcore rap from community treasure rap duo, Dual Core, and the Fresh Prince may have learned how a Pwn Plug works. Or not. 

"My Name Is Edward Snowden"

Two life-sized cardboard cutout stand-ups of former government contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden made their way around various rooms of the conference (and parties) all weekend. The "Where's Waldo" version became weathered from stickering and attention from people who posed with it in photos all throughout the conference; we missed seeing the Edward Snowden look-alike contest.

A significant number of attendees wore "Hello my name is" nametags with "Edward Snowden" printed or hand-written on them. It seemed a sobering reminder that any one of the attendees could have been the bright, disillusioned ex-government contractor.

During one of DEF CON's parties, cardboard Edward Snowden DJ'd a set; one room had a false wall through a photo booth with another party inside, complete with maragrita machines and more.



The Bitcoin ATM machine in a briefcase

A Bitcoin ATM briefcase made its way all over DEF CON and its attached parties. Shot below at the extravagant, crypot-puzzle-for-access #LOLBitcoin party (thrown by Exploit Hub and Rift Recon), its maker led me through a demonstration while a small crowd of partygoers waited their turn to try the machine.

Once the briefcase is plugged in and booted up, the customer inserts change through a coin slot located on the side of the case.



Once finished inserting change, the user presses the nearby button to complete the deposit. The case converts and processes the deposit.

The depositor is rewarded with a receipt bearing a hash that can then be used with the depositor's Bitcoin service of choice.


DEFCON: The Documentry released

The crew of DEFCON: The Documentary. The doc premiered on the first day of DEF CON 21, with an estimated audience of around 1,000. In contending with filming the community, known to dislike press and outsiders, director and editor Jason Scott (of Internet Archive) said,

DEF CON is now an old enough and large enough conference that the real “no photos of me, no knowing my name, no recording anything near me, no personal details” crowd has long since moved away or into other endeavors.

There’s still a few folks understandably unwilling to be involved in such silliness, but between the vests and the obvious filming, we got by.

The documentary is freely available to watch in a variety of ways, all found on the DEFCON: The Documentary page.



Adults-only party game Cards Against Humanity is an extremely popular, hard to find, and totally politically incorrect multiplayer card game that is a popular party activity in some hacker circles. 

Hackers Against Humanity made its debut at Def Con 21 (and used the same printer as "Cards"), with a marathon game played onstage in DEF CON's 'Contests' room.

The decks were sold with all proceeds going to the EFF, and sold out instantly. The Hackers Against Humanity card decks focus on hacker knowledge, memes, extremely inappropriate jokes about community events and personalities, and make steaks out of any sacred cows that might have strayed inadvertently into hacker territory.

See more photos and read much more about the activities, outrageous parties and more mischief at DEF CON 21 in:


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