DEF CON was an interesting experience. From the badges to the 110-degree days, a lot happened and a lot was learned. The conference may have a reputation of being a constant party, but it’s more than that. Here’s my account of what happened at DEF CON 26.
Unlike most conferences where you register in advance, usually with a credit card, I had to pay cash at the door. After doing so, I received my schedule book and the coveted DEF CON badge. Every year, the conference designs a custom badge that presents a difficult puzzle. The first person to solve it is a Black Badge winner, an honor which earns you free entry for life.
The theme of this year’s conference was 1983, the year before George Orwell’s dystopian society of 1984 begins. The electronic badge featured a single green person, and every choice attendees made could either further the dystopia (turning a letter in DEF CON red) or help prevent it (turning a letter to green). The goal was to turn all of the letters green.
To help solve the puzzle, attendees could plug the badge into a computer via USB and view a text output which described the green person’s decisions. The badge could also be connected to other badges, and attendees soon noticed that there were eight kinds of badges.
Different things happened when we connected to each one, and the other player’s decisions also affected our own. For example, if you connected with someone who had made bad decisions, it might negatively influence your own ability to get an all-green DEF CON.
Solving the puzzle involved much more that I couldn’t get to but should be able to read about soon. There are usually write-ups posted after the conference every year. Here’s an example of a write-up from a couple of years ago.
I’d heard lots of stories about DEF CON prior to attending, but I was thoroughly impressed by the genuine niceness of the people. They were just a bunch of people interested in hacking, unlike some other conferences where attendees might be more corporate-focused.
I had fascinating conversations with all kinds of people ranging from college and high school students to people who joined this industry 50 years ago. Everyone was just there to have fun with like-minded people, learn a little something, and of course, do some hacking.
My least favorite part about the conference was the lines. I’d heard there might be around 30,000 people there (and there were), but I couldn’t actually fathom what that meant until I saw it. There were Disney World-level lines, and if you really wanted to attend a certain talk, you had to be there two hours early, unless it was a main-track talk.
However, most of the talks were in villages or workshops which had a classroom-like feeling that was engaging and intimate. A friend from Duo Security did an amazing talk on security education in the Packet Hacking Village. That talk was more of a conversation between the participants and speaker than a lecture.
From the moment I stepped into the conference center of Caesars Palace, I knew DEF CON was going to be a great, inclusive place for me to explore my interests in security.
There was an LGBTQ+ group that held several events, diversity panels, and my favorite: the Diana Initiative.
The Diana Initiative required preregistration, but I managed to squeeze into one of the talks. A woman from Microsoft spoke to a group of about 60 people about application security and incident response. As a person who builds web applications every day, I found this talk interesting and informative. The group was welcoming and highly focused on educating all people on security and how to do that while developing.
Though I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked in talks due to the long lines, I think I learned a lot at DEF CON. Few talks I attended were too far over my head to understand, and it was definitely beneficial for me, not having much security background, to get this experience.
Everyone in tech should attend DEF CON at least once, even just to get a summary of topics to inspire further research. Another great thing is that most of the talks are recorded, so you can watch (or re-watch) them later on.
DEF CON 27 will be August 8-11, 2019, in Las Vegas. Consider attending next year!