Hacker convention plays "Spot the Fed"

Comdex it ain't. The convention of computer geeks meeting at Las Vegas this weekend built a conference network for attendees to hack, awarded prizes for spotting federal agents in the crowd, and heralded a hot hacker trivia contest.

It was DefCon, the annual gathering of self-described hackers, security professionals and -- yes -- US federal agents keeping an eye on the action. More than 2500 of them braved the recent desert floods to attend the show.

DefCon organisers design the tracks and events to draw the young hacker elite that make up the majority of people at the show, according to Jeff Moss (also known as Dark Tangent), organiser of DefCon 7. The agenda included more serious sessions on security technology, as well as a number of off-the-wall events. And DefCon's creative attractions rivalled those of Las Vegas itself, no slouch when it comes to the unique and usual.

Spot the fed

As surely as hackers gather to swap information, federal officials intermingle to try to glean whatever they can from the rowdy discussion groups. If a convention-goer suspects another attendee is a federal agent (of whatever stripe), he or she announces a spontaneous Fed Spotting.

Then, DefCon organisers haul the accusing hacker and the suspected fed before an informal tribunal. Each must make a case: the hacker explains why the suspect is likely a Fed, and the accused agent must defend the charge.

The crowd of patrons makes the ruling -- and sometimes the accused obligingly or resignedly produces ID. T-shirts are awarded: the accuser gets one that reads "I Spotted The Fed", while the agent's T-shirt reads, "I Am The Fed".

Testing skills

A hacker's convention couldn't overlook a skills competition. The most overwhelmingly geeky event of the convention was a digital version of Capture the Flag.

Attendees connect their own computers to a special local area network, trying to break into servers set up by the organisers. The playing field is rows of tables covered with computers, where participants furiously type command-line code trying to break into the contest systems. Once a hacker compromises the house server, the next task is to secure it from other hackers and keep his or her own system secure as well.

DefCon attendees also plugged in to play networked games every night (all night). The LAN-gaming group IRQ hosts IRQ Conflict, a game room where attendees can bring their own gaming systems and find online competitors for Quake II and other networked games.

Another late-night event is Hacker Jeopardy. The games begin at 11 p.m. every night of the convention, hosted by computer security expert Winn Schwartau in the style of the television game show. The audience acts as arbiters of good taste or the quality of the questioning. The penalty for missteps is a drink, which produces some intoxicated contestants.

Hackers get physical

Sometimes the hackers exercise more than working their fingers on the keyboards. A new event at DefCon '99 was the Hacker Deathmatch.

Contestants climb into a pair of inflatable sumo wrestling suits, under the eye of a team of official-looking referees. All comers are welcome to stage a grudge match against friends (or enemies) as a tension release.

The formal event of DefCon is the Black and White Ball. Half Halloween party and half rave, this evening event invites hackers and their dates to dress in costumes or formalwear and rock the night away.

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Andrew Brandt

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