August 3rd, 2009

planet

defcon session roundup: hackerspaces, Adam Savage, privacy and old parts

I'm home from defcon! It was an amazing weekend, I have so much to write about, but really couldn't while at the conference because I was afraid to log in anyplace. Even thought livejournal has secure logins, I still get nervous. Plus, when you're in vegas, who has time to write? You're supposed to be running around like crazy which is exactly what I was doing.

So I'll do little detail entries throughout the week I guess, but for now just a general overview.

What I did: Went to Defcon, a yearly "security" conference. The main focus is computer software security but people also learn about lock picking, dumpster diving, hardware modifications, how to get away with shit, activism, culture, and debauchery.

The uber-nerd in me absolutely loves all conferences for their SESSIONS. Yes, I go on vacations to sit in lectures all day. But it's awesome. There were some not-so-great ones... I noticed several sessions about the aviation industry but both let me down. The one on air traffic control and ADS-B let me down a little, because the guy proposed no grand solutions to some obvious flaws in the FAA's new system. The one on in-aircraft wi-fi hot spots let me down a LOT because the guy evaluated these networks the same way you would an on-ground hot spot, and refused to go into the real cool factor about airplane networks, which is the handoff protocols.

There were some fabulous sessions though. Sherri Davidoff had a two-hour presentation on day one called "Death of Anonymous Travel", where she meticulously described the various systems that track our movements, what the information is used for, why it needs to be more secure and what we need to do to change things. It was a little scary. Companies that record our every stoplight location on cameras aren't subject to security audits like they should be. We're all carrying tracking devices in our cell phones right now, and the telecom companies are giving our information to the government whenever they get bored, it seems. Increasingly, businesses are refusing to let us use cash, we have to use credit cards, and lots of information is shared at every credit card transaction. And don't even get us started on RFID. So anyway, my paragraph here obviously can't do the presentation justice but it was genius.

I saw Adam Savage from Mythbusters! Sometimes DEFCON organizers seem unaware that this has become a large conference, and this was definitely a case. They allow ten minutes per session for people to transition in and out of a room, whether we're seeing some MIT kid nobody's heard of or a TV star. People were lining up an hour early for Adam's presentation. The room would be big... 900 people, but that's not a 10-minute transition. The line wrapped around the whole riviera and just about went back on itself. I personally didn't line up until 15 minutes before the presentation, and the goons (conference staff) told me that I would NOT make it in, the room would be full. 50 people behind me, they flat-out stopped letting people line up, saying they'd missed their chance, go find another session.

Well, we all got in. Actually when the line ended the big room was only 3/4 full. 900 seats, guys, it's gonna be a big line. His presentation started a half hour late because no one was seated. There was a huge overflow room with NOBODY in it because the goons had told latecomers to go home.

But his talk was funny and enlightening. He talked about failing and what it teaches you, and told stories of his terrible failures... big ones that involve really letting people down. He said great people learn from their mistakes and correct them, and making mistakes doesn't even prevent you from making other ones, but it might at least help you recognize when you're going down that road. He doesn't trust people who say they've never failed miserably at something.

My other favorite session was about hackerspaces. It was a panel talk of people from different cities involved in these spaces. The gist is that 50 or so friends get together, pitch in $20 a month, and rent a space where they can store tools and parts, take up hobbies that would otherwise burn the house down, have social events and be a cool part of the community. Washington DC has one that's trying to get free wi-fi in economically challenged areas. The one in Toronto is teaching people to code in Python using open source textbooks. And sometimes they just do fun stuff... brew beer, make clocks, program a toilet to post to Twitter every time it flushes. It was an awesome talk that made me totally want to join a hackerspace in Wichita if we ever get that far.

Finally, I saw a guy demonstrate a modem that was built in 1964. It's "accoustic coupled", meaning you set a handset on it and it uses phone tones to send data, because back then it was illegal to plug in devices to telephone networks unless they were Ma Bell approved. He found the old part, figured out how it worked and now has an awesome working piece of history. That, my friends, is what hacking is all about!

Okay... I hate when livejournal entries are so long people are scared to read or comment, so I'm leaving this here. I did not cover much! I went to more sessions, and haven't even started talking about the parties or general vegas fun we got into, guess that'll be later!