Hacker conference tells Feds not to attend

The founder of Def Con, the world's largest hacker conference, has requested that government employees do not attend.

Patrick Semansky/ AP Photo/ File
The National Security Agency plaques are seen at the compound at Fort Meade, Md. The NSA is equipped with various electronic means to ward off an attack by hackers.

One of the world’s largest hacker conferences, Def Con, requested that government employees do not attend this year’s annual conference, citing discomfort with federal officials in the wake of National Security Agency revelations. 

“It would be best for everyone involved if the feds call a ‘time-out’ and not attend Def Con this year,” writes Def Con’s founder, Jeff Moss. The statement was signed with Mr. Moss's hacker nickname: The Dark Tangent.  

The Def Con conference takes place in Las Vegas, and has hosted dialogue among a wide variety of individuals and groups ranging from private hackers to representatives from security companies, as well as federal agents.

About 15,000 people are expected at the Def Con conference, which costs $180 per person. The conference runs from August 1-3. 

Traditionally, there has been a general acknowledgement that not all federal government employees who attend the Def Con conference do so openly, and a jovial “Spot the Fed” competition has become commonplace at the Def Con conference.

Electronic security conferences such as Def Con have been a good way to “bridge the gap of misunderstandings” between these different voices, says Kurt Opsahl, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Monitor in a phone interview. “Engagement between these communities is a good thing, as long as its honest engagement.”

Def Con’s request to the federal government to stay away from this year’s conference is a notable sea change in the relationship between federal security agencies and civilian hackers. 

“I would expect we’ll go once again go back to the days of Feds attending these conferences in an incognito manner,” and they certainly won’t be wearing “NSA Recruiter” hats as in years past, writes Tony Cole, the Vice President of Fire Eye, a security software developer, in an email.

General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, spoke at last year’s Def Con conference and denied that the government had vast files of information, calling it “absolute nonsense,” according to a Reuters report. Documents leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden called Gen. Alexander’s bluff, revealing that the federal government had been secretly collecting electronic data of US citizens and alleged foreign agents.  

While Def Con is keeping government officials at arm’s length, Gen. Alexander will appear at another security conference this year. The NSA director is a keynote speaker at the Black Hat security conference that also takes place in Las Vegas, and ends the week before Def Con kicks off.  

Mr. Moss started both conferences, but Def Con has a more community-based feel, whereas Black Hat attracts a more business-oriented group. Moss could not be reached for comment.  

The General Manager of Black Hat, Trey Ford, acknowledges the polarizing effects the NSA's surveillance program revealed by Mr. Snowden had in the relationship between the federal government and civilian hackers, but he says that the existence of such a program was long suspected in the hacker community. Mr. Ford expects a sense of "jovial teasing" between the hackers, who have long suspected Prism-like programs, and federal agents, while acknowledging that there will probably be quite a barrage of questions for Gen. Alexander. 

Mr. Opsahl from the EFF says that while many hackers who work for the federal government will not be met with animosity at security conferences, the pervasive libertarian tone at many of these events mean that any joking feelings probably have underlying sentiments of "shock and appall." 

"It may give a feeling of 'I told you so,' but that doesn't make it any less a violation," says Opsahl. 

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