Network Security, Vulnerability Management

DefCon to feds: You’re not welcome this year


Updated below

Jeff Moss, founder of the DefCon hacker conference, has a message for the feds: Please avoid the show this year.

Long a recruitment hub for the federal government to encourage skilled hackers to consider a job in the public sector, or a centralized place for agents to spy on suspects, the four-day event early next month in Las Vegas, now in its 21st year and home to the "world's most hostile network", is asking that the feds stay home.

While Moss, who penned the post announcing the no-fed policy under his online handle "Dark Tangent," didn't directly attribute the rebuff to the recent leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which showed that the spy agency is engaging in bulk and indiscriminate phone and internet data collection of Americans, that is the understanding.

"For over two decades DefCon has been an open nexus of hacker culture, a place where seasoned pros, hackers, academics, and feds can meet, share ideas and party on neutral territory," Moss wrote. "Our community operates in the spirit of openness, verified trust, and mutual respect. When it comes to sharing and socializing with feds, recent revelations have made many in the community uncomfortable about this relationship. Therefore, I think it would be best for everyone involved if the feds call a 'time-out' and not attend DefCon this year. This will give everybody time to think about how we got here, and what comes next."

The news has led at least one talk scheduled at the show this year to be canceled out of opposition to the policy. (See update below)

The presence of the feds has been commonplace at DefCon, the more rebellious sister to the Black Hat conference ($1,695 is needed to gain admittance to Black Hat, but one can fetch a DefCon pass for $180, cash only), despite trepidation among some and calls for otherwise.

"Spot the Fed" has long been a staple, playful game at the show, in which attendees are tasked with finding who they believe is a federal agent and, with the help of convention security known as "goons," then lure them on stage to face questioning. The winner (or loser) gets a T-Shirt: Either "I spotted the fed" or "I am the fed."

With his announcement, Moss, who ironically is a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council, is singing a notably different tune this year than last, when Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, was invited to keynote the 2012 event. (Alexander is slated to keynote at Black Hat this year).

"Don't you think it's important to hear what the most senior person at the NSA has to say?" Moss told Reuters in 2012. "I'm interested in hearing what he has to say."

"One of the things I try to do at DefCon is take some of the hackers out of their comfort zone...I want to expose them to people they would normally not hear from," he added.

But not this year.

The security community, expectedly, had plenty to say about Moss' statement.

Some, such as Robert Graham, founder and CEO of Errata Security, said Moss' message wasn't political in nature. Instead, the founder sensed some apprehension among customers and made an executive decision to squash it.

"A highly visible fed presence is likely to trigger conflict with people upset over Snowden-gate," he wrote. "From shouting matches, to physical violence, to 'hack the fed', something bad might occur. Or, simply attendees will choose to stay away. Any reasonable conference organizer, be they pro-fed or anti-fed, would want to reduce the likelihood of this conflict."

Others, like Kyle Maxwell, a senior network security specialist who regularly attends the show, said the announcement from Moss is emblematic of an uneasiness that must be worked out.

"I think this is indicative of tensions and have the building within the infosec community for some time," he wrote in a blog. "While not new, I feel a mood in the hacker community that has resurged to levels I've not seen in years. The Snowden affair really only brought to the fore problems that seemed to worsen during the Bush administration, then got quiet with many people felt that perhaps things will change under President Obama. Clearly, that was not the case by any stretch of the imagination."

And there has been no shortage of tweets surrounding the news.

UPDATE: In light of the dispatch from Moss, two researchers scheduled to present at DefCon next month have pulled the plug on their talk. James Jardine and Kevin Johnson of independent security consultancy Secure Ideas were set to demonstrate how to attack SharePoint, Microsoft's collaboration software.

They have changed their minds.

"The issue we are struggling with, and the basis of our decision, is that we feel strongly that DefCon has always presented a neutral ground that encouraged open communication among the community, despite the industry background and diversity of motives to attend," Johnson wrote. "We believe the exclusion of the "feds" this year does the exact opposite at a critical time."

The pair are still planning to make details of their talk available at a later date.

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