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Remembering the first DEF CON
By Annaliza Savage
ZDTV
July 5, 1999, 5:00 PM PT

As the summer rolls around, so does DEF CON, the annual hacker convention in Las Vegas that started small but has grown to enormous proportions, so large in fact, that it's even been parodied on the X-Files.

Remembering the underground roots of DEF CON, it seems strange that it has become such a major event (and huge cash cow). Who would have thought that hackers would become such media darlings?

Not me.


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Back in 1993, I was one of the 100-odd hackers who turned up at the (now demolished) Sands Hotel for DEF CON I. A good portion of the crowd at that first DEF CON hailed from the LA 2600 scene, since Vegas was a quick desert road trip from Los Angeles.

It was an intimate affair. There was a lot of drinking (as is usual for hacker cons), a lot of pranks and, most importantly, a lot of knowledge that was exchanged.

Among others, Mark Ludwig showed up to talk about viruses, Dan Farmer talked about Unix security holes and Gail Thackeray lectured on the evils of hacking.

For me, the best part of DEF CON I, (besides the drinking) was the socializing. Hours were spent in the Holy Cow (a great bar if you're in Vegas) getting wasted and roving through rows of slot machines looking for creative ways to cause trouble. It was a blast.

And that's what the original hacker cons were about. Meeting people face-to-face whom you'd only known by reputation or from hanging out on underground BBS's like Lunatic Labs -- exchanging knowledge and information, and generally having a good time with like-minded hackers.

Best of DEF CON?
As DEF CON 7.0 rolls around, the spirit of the event has changed. With the number of attendees going from 100 in 1993 to 2,000 in 1998, much of the intimacy is gone, but the hacker scene has changed as well. Even back in '93, hackers were lamenting the "old days" and how the underground had changed.

Six years on, the perception of hackers and hacking has hit a different phase. Now "Spot the Fed" is a DEF CON game, in 1993 it was more of a concern.

The DEF CON Web site, which is flogging a video, "The Best of DEF CON," for $19.95, reflects the changes: "Can't make it to DEF CON? Got money? No problem. 3 solid hours of the best of Def Con 7 footage…"

I thought it was amusing to find DEF CON was a secure ordering site: proving things really have changed since the old days! "You may find you experience problems if you have a DEBIT card, if this happens please phone us -- we can process your credit card where ever you live in the world!!!!!"

Who in their right mind would give their credit card number to a hacker?

Six years ago I would have put down the send-us-your-credit-card-number pitch to social engineering. Now that hacking has gone public, and the Web has become a major commercial enterprise, it's no longer an absurd concept.

With the L0pht crew testifying before the Senate and hackers making big money off stock options, the image of the Jolt-slugging, pizza-scarfing, bleary-eyed cracker (a la "The Matrix") is actually in vogue!

Still a good party
Over the years DEF CON has grown in leaps and bounds and attracted a lot of media hype, thanks to the entrepreneurial nature of its founder Jeff Moss (aka Dark Tangent). Some of the hard-cores from 1993 still show up, and some avoid it like the plague. It's still a good excuse to party with your mates.

And, among all the throng of newbies and feds and media there is still a very talented core that shows, including the L0pht crew and members of the Cult of the Dead Cow. It's just that now, a lot of the real action happens behind closed doors.





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