By Elizabeth Weise
Las Vegas -- First they cracked into a hotel television
system, reprogramming it to scroll messages reading "Hackers
rule!" across screens in 1,000 rooms.
Later that night they set up a pirate radio station and
began broadcasting from the roof of the Tropicana.
But in the end, Def Con III, the computer hackers'
convention, was a lot tamer than many Las Vegas conventions.
The 350 or so computer hackers, crackers, phone phreaks and
e-zine (electronic magazine) publishers spent most of the Aug.
5-6 weekend bragging, gossiping, listening to speakers who
extolled the hacker ethic and trying to debug the
super-high-speed T-1 line that was supposed to give them
screaming access to the Internet.
Def Con is named for the military term Defense Condition, a
measure of just how close the country is to nuclear war. It
began three years ago as a massive party thrown by a young
bulletin board operator who goes by the name Dark Tangent.
"I was going to leave for law school and I decided to throw
a huge party for everyone I've met from all the networks. Then
we decided if it was going to be a colossal failure, we might as
well have it someplace fun, so we chose Las Vegas."
Housed in two large rooms surreally juxtaposed with the
Tropicana's wedding chapel across the hall, this year's
conventioneers were mostly intensely bright young men in their
late teens and early 20s -- the sort who 30 years ago might have
been ham radio operators.
Hacking comes from an intellectual desire to figure out how
things work, and the desire to show off just how much you know.
Grace and skill count for more than sheer power, and an elegant
solution to a problem gains more esteem from one's peers than
Hackers, according to Dark Tangent, are protrayed in the
media only as marauding and destructive, when in fact they are
"(Hackers) are interested in how the network topology is
laid out. They're interested in knowledge -- they're not
interested in destroying things," the 25-year-old said.
In fact, hackers provide an important service to the
computer world by spending thousands of hours finding networks'
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weak points, said former CIA intelligence officer Robert Steele.
The assembled crowd, some of whom kept nodding off in
corners after arriving via an all-night car caravan from the San
Francisco Bay area, were overwhelmingly male.
Out of 350 participants, perhaps 20 were women, most of
whom appeared to be girlfriends of attendees. The attitude
toward women was summed up by one man in his early 20s who was
catching up with a friend at the registration desk.
"Yeah, I've had a girlfriend for a year and a half, but it
hasn't gotten in the way of my hacking," he said.
The women-not-as-peers attitude was only reinforced when
Sarah Gordon ("Theora") gave a presentation on female hackers
Saturday afternoon that included height and weight as part of
the design parameters of her survey.
The convention broke down into four main portions:
bragging, drinking, hacking and information exchange.
One speaker, an electronic privacy expert named Winn
Schwartau, explained to the crowd how it was possible to obtain
plans for using a television to pick up what is being typed on a
remote computer screen; in effect, eavesdropping on a computer
user without having to hack into their system.
"The National Security Agency unfortunately classified
them, but if you want them, they're on the Internet," he told
Amusements over the course of the weekend included the
ever-popular "Spot the Fed" contest -- in which the assembled
tried to guess who among them were federal undercover agents --
and midnight games of Hackers' Jeopardy, which required the
audience to duck flying 2,400-baud modems thrown as prizes.
Jeopardy, the first official event of the con, featured
Dark Tangent doing a fine impression of TV game show host Alex
Trebeck. The categories ranged from "MS-DOS" to "The Internet"
and "Narcs I've come to love."
The answer is: "The rudest mistake Microsoft ever made."
"What is starting business?"
The answer is: "Famous for developing the X-ray laser,
their computers held over 30,000 megs of pornographic images."
"What is Lawrence Livermore Labs?" answered Larry Lasker,
co-writer and producer of the computer movies "Wargamess" and
"Sneakers." He said he was attending to pick up background for
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his latest film.
After suitable arrangements for a beer run, the game started up
The answer is: "The password on every (network) router
shipped by Cisco Systems."
"What is Italy?" came the answer from several teams
The answer is: "The lowest form of life."
"What are America Online users?" came the shouts from the