There won't be any federal agents at the DEF CON hacker conference in Las Vegas this August.
In a brief posting on the official DEF CON website last night (July 10), DEF CON founder Jeff "The Dark Tangent" Moss asked that federal law-enforcement and intelligence personnel stay away this year.
"For over two decades, DEF CON 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," he said. "Therefore, I think it would be best for everyone involved if the feds call a 'time-out' and not attend DEF CON this year."
A DEF CON without visible "fed" presence will be a sharp contrast from last year, when National Security Agency director and U.S. Cyber Command chief Gen. Keith Alexander gave the keynote address and implored hackers to come work for the NSA.
Responding to an onstage question by Moss, Alexander said that, "anybody who tells you we're keeping files or dossiers on the American people knows that's not true."
The NSA also had a recruiting table in the DEF CON exhibitors' hall — right next to the booth of the digital-liberties-defending Electronic Frontier Foundation.
This year, Alexander will be speaking at the Black Hat security conference immediately preceding DEF CON in Las Vegas. Moss also founded the Black Hat conference, which is more professionally oriented than DEF CON, but later sold it to the British media company UBM.
Several top organizers of DEF CON, which was first held in 1993, have gone on to government positions, including Moss himself, who is a member of President Barack Obama's Homeland Security Advisory Council.
Hackers, government agents and security professionals — individuals often fall into more than one category — mingle at all security conferences, but DEF CON is the largest, weirdest and most fun conference on the yearly circuit, a gathering at which attendees can let their hair down and start drinking (and hacking) at 9 a.m.
DEF CON can't really enforce a ban on government agents, since conference registration involves simply plunking down $180 cash at the door and getting a badge. Real names are not required. But some scheduled speakers may have to withdraw their presentations.
Moss' announcement immediately sent waves through the information-security industry, with some criticizing the move as ill-advised or, worse, hypocritical.
"Telling Feds they are not welcome at Defcon damages our collective infosec community. Will be harder for folks to justify to mgmt too," tweeted Florida security professional Tony Turner.
"Strange that DefCon is concerned about trust issues w/ the feds this yr when it was a lackey for the NSA last year," tweeted Wired information-security reporter Kim Zetter.
Robert Graham of Atlanta-based Errata Security defended Moss' decision.
"A highly visible fed presence is likely to trigger conflict with people upset over Snowden-gate. From shouting matches, to physical violence, to 'hack the fed,' something bad might occur," Graham wrote. "Any reasonable conference organizer, be they pro-fed or anti-fed, would want to reduce the likelihood of this conflict.
"The easiest way to do this is by reducing the number of feds at DEF CON by asking them not to come," Graham added. "The feds don't have a right to be there — the hackers do. If bad-behaving hackers are going to stir up trouble with innocent feds, it's still the feds who have to go."
Last year, one of the most raucous and candid discussion panels at DEF CON was made up of current and former federal agents, who welcomed hecklers and held up signs reading "BULLS**T" whenever a fellow panelist said something questionable.
Since no one wears a suit and tie at DEF CON, government agents are not especially distinguishable, leading to a long-standing game of "Spot the Fed." Agents so uncovered often end up having beers with their pursuers.
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