Defcon 15: Hacked in Las Vegas

Three days, thousands of hackers and boy do I need a drink

Photo By Brett Neilson

I’m on a shuttle from the airport to the strip, driving through the neon slum. It’s like hell’s movie set—a cast of burned-up addicts twitching down the sidewalk, dejected gamblers slumping toward the next casino and erect frat boys giggling at the scattered business cards of legs-spread massage whores. If there’s one place to get off the sobriety wagon, this is it.

“You goin’ to Defcon?” the kid sitting in front of me asks.

“Yeah, you?”

His eyes light up and his peach-fuzz mustache turns up into a smile. “I’m in forensics. … I’m here for free. … Yeah, this is my first time. … I look through dead people’s computers.”

He keeps talking.

“It’s going to be a long weekend,” I think. Even his zits are over-excited. I lean back in case one pops on me.

The plan: Get to the Riviera Hotel and Casino, where the convention is held, meet up with a few Sacramento hackers and tag along while they hack into shit and cause havoc. I’ve always been fascinated by hackers, but recently when state-hired professors from UC Davis hacked into voting machines, determining them easily penetrable on all fronts, my curiosity was further piqued. What are they like? Are they phone-line-stealing, mom’s basement-dwelling, Coke-drinking, no-sex-having nerds, like in the movies, or something completely different? Of all places, Defcon, the hacker convention since 1993, is the place to find out.

I just have to remember: Ignore the free drinks. It’s a simple plan but, like all good ones, it’s doomed from the very beginning.

I’m supposed to meet up with Zane, who, like many Defcon attendees, works in security. And he’s been known to throw back a few cocktails. I give him a call but there’s no answer. He’s hard to get a hold of—probably a hacker thing.

It’s Thursday, the night before the conference, and the hotel staff is expecting more than 6,800 hackers to show up. I’m told the Riviera is the only hotel on the strip that will allow such a meeting.

Now I’m in the lobby, staring at an immaculate statue of beer cans in the gift-shop window, waiting for Kingpin, the guy I’ll be staying with for the duration of the three-day event. He’s an electrical engineer, author, inventor, co-host of an upcoming engineering show on cable, friend of mine from the “Time Out Box” in kindergarten, and member of the now-defunct, legendary Boston-based hacker collective L0pht Heavy Industries. In 1998, Kingpin and L0pht members testified before the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, claiming they could disable the Internet in under 30 minutes. Bold, for a bunch of kids in trench coats, but also the God’s honest truth.

The lobby swarms with hackers in funny T-shirts: “Not even Norton can protect you,” “Frisk me, I’m a Terrorist,” and for the rare female, “While you were staring at my tits, I owned your box.” And somewhere among all these mysterious souls with code names and secrets that could land them in jail would be my contact, Zane. For the first time I worry I might never find him.

Hackers walk freely around the premises, smoking cigarettes with drinks in their hands: rum and coke, vodka tonic, Budweiser, whiskey, gin and juice, whiskey, whiskey, whi …


Kingpin is running toward me with a huge grin. He’s good looking, and not just by hacker standards—tall, lanky and always smiling. He knows nothing about news, literature or popular culture, and he thinks mostly in electronics, which made it possible for him to design this year’s badges. But they’re not your average “Joe State Worker, Department of Boredom and Failure” badges. They’re more like large circuit boards worn around the neck to let security know if you’re a regular person, a speaker, an employee, a vendor or press. Every year the badge introduces more technology; this year, scrolling LED lights let the owner display whatever text they punch in. “PWNED” and “Fuck You,” so far, are not uncommon phrases.

Kingpin sports an “Uber” badge—which, stripped of its Nazi connotation, is geek for “awesome.” Around his scrolling lights is a platinum-like frame encrusted in faux-diamonds: Nerd bling is only for the man who made the badge, he tells me.

We get to our room, put down our things and head out to the first of many parties where I’ll tag along and take notes. The parties are private and the only way I’ll get in is through Kingpin. In the corridors, geeks stop to take pictures with him and his Uber badge. Between Vegas’ fluorescent illusion of air-conditioned beauty and the dark aura of Marilyn Manson-esque hackers, reality is becoming skewed.

The irony is that this guy doesn’t care for censorship.

SN&R Photo By Joe Grand

We head to a Black Ball, then to a fund-raiser for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group. Everybody’s wasted. I begin to realize there’s less hacking than I thought. Defcon seems more of a social-boozing event than a meeting of high-tech terrorists. While Kingpin wanders around the party being praised by his brethren, I eye the bar. Rum, vodka, whiskey …

Kingpin says he needs to make a delivery, so I go with him, hoping maybe we’ll run into Zane.

LosT is an average-looking guy with a goatee and glasses. His room’s been transformed into some sort of torture chamber. Skeletons hang from the ceiling, laptops sit on the table, and tools—soldering irons, duct tape and wires—are scattered across the floor. More skulls line the dressers and there’s not an inch of space left anywhere. A guy sleeping in one of the beds shoots up, looks at me, grunts and goes back to sleep.

“You can’t tell anyone about this,” LosT whispers. He points to the back wall, lined with metal boxes with wires jutting from their lids. It becomes clear that I’m standing in the hotel room of a sadistic madman.

“What the fuck?” (It’s all I can think of.)

He shoves one of the bombs in my arms. I wince.

“Feel it. It’s like 50 pounds,” he says, smiling like a man with a brain wired only for evil.

I have to swear my secrecy twice before LosT explains the deal: It’s a game. Hackers form teams, then—using lock-picking, electronics, puzzle skills and networking techniques—they open the box. The challenge becomes harder with each Defcon, he says, and he’ll be surprised if any of the teams this year don’t go mental with frustration.

I return to our hotel room, tired and confused.

On Friday morning, Kingpin’s gone. I hit registration for my “Press” badge and head to the room where he’s supposed to speak.

This and the following days are filled with talks, from MySpace hacking to “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Police Procedure in 50 Minutes.” In one conference room, Defcon CEO The Dark Tangent projects a picture of a blonde woman onto a screen. “It’s a new game,” he says. “Spot the undercover reporter.”

She’s Michelle Madigan, an associate producer for Dateline NBC, known for the series “To Catch a Predator,” where investigators bait overly enthusiastic child-lovers, then humiliate and prosecute them for sweeps week. Her plan this time is to infiltrate the conference, going undercover to catch a hacker who’ll admit committing a felony into her pinhole camera.

Thing is, you can’t out-hack a hacker. Within minutes of Dark Tangent’s announcement, Madigan gets chased out of the convention by geeks. And my press badge becomes a scarlet letter. Glares and sideways comments aren’t uncommon in the wake of this Dateline wench’s failed mission.

My perception has changed—what I thought about hackers, what I’d gathered from TV and movies, was only part of the story. The fashion and the criminal mischief are the easiest things to depict. What’s harder is the true definition of a hacker: One who’s constantly figuring things out. They’re anarchists of sorts, but with their own quasi-society. Left alone, they explore; tampered with, they might lash out.

Heading to a talk on journalism and hackers, I see LosT carrying a metal rod with a skull at the end, like a cyber-head-hunter. I hope he doesn’t see me. He’s a frightening man.

At around 7 p.m., Zane comes staggering down the corridor, looking like he left his soul at the bar: bloated face, bags under his eyes—a corpse. “Sorry, man, I wasn’t trying to blow you off,” he says. “I just woke up.”

I’d almost forgotten about him. Turns out he spent the night at the Spearmint Rhino, a strip club known for its intense lap dances. “I can’t blame you,” I say, and he stumbles off, disappearing back into the crowd.

The days blend together. It’s like we’ve been in Vegas for weeks. By the final hours of Defcon 15, Kingpin’s badge is hacked to become a visual sound level meter, most of the hotel’s public Internet devices are not-so-mysteriously shut down, the ATM machines are blocked off, and practically everything with an “On” switch has an “Out of Service” sticker plastered to it. Mischief at its finest. Nothing in the Riviera Hotel is the same as it was. It’s all been hacked: passwords, vending machines, brains. Everything.

I gather my things, thank Kingpin for inviting me and say goodbye. Walking back to the airport shuttle, it dawns on me that it’s my first time seeing the strip in daylight. Neon is overpowered by the sun. There are mountains and clouds and birds. Even in the 100-plus heat, there are joggers. As the shuttle nears the airport, I notice a full bottle of Jack under the seat in front of me. Some poor drunk must have forgotten all about it.