DEF CON Founder Urges Feds To Take A 'Time Out' From The Hacker Conference

The Dark Tangent's post stirs heated debate within the hacker, security community

Dark Reading Staff, Dark Reading

July 12, 2013

6 Min Read

[UPDATE: 4:06 p.m. ET: A DEF CON presenter has decided to pull his talk at the conference in light of a decision by organizers to discourage feds from attending. Kevin Johnson, CEO of Secure Ideas, said he and James Jardine won't present their research on attacking SharePoint after all at DEF CON because the "exclusion of the feds" goes against the conference's tradition of "openness that this event has always encouraged."]

The elephant in the room -- NSA/Edward Snowden--just exploded: DEF CON hacker conference founder Jeff Moss caught the security industry by surprise late yesterday with a post on the event's website asking federal government employees not to bother attending the hacker confab next month.

Moss's blunt "Feds, We Need Some Time Apart" post, referring to the leaks by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden of NSA domestic surveillance programs, made it clear the feds aren't welcome this year as in years past. "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 DEF CON this year," Moss said.

"This will give everybody time to think about how we got here, and what comes next."

Moss began his post by explaining how DEF CON historically has been a place for all of those parties to meet on neutral ground. "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. Our community operates in the spirit of openness, verified trust, and mutual respect," he said.

DEF CON's move to "uninvite" the feds spurred some heated debate within the security community, with some longtime DEF CON participants cheering the move, and others jeering it.

Trey Ford, general manager for the Black Hat USA security conference, says Moss's post was "an interesting move" for DEF CON. "DEF CON and Black Hat are different events. Black Hat strives to cultivate interaction, innovation, and partnership within the security ecosystem -- offense and defense, public and private. I think this is an interesting move for them; we will all be watching to see what happens next," Ford says.

General Keith Alexander, NSA director and Commander, U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), meanwhile, is scheduled to kick off the Black Hat USA Briefings in a keynote on July 31.

Ford says Black Hat hopes to encourage discussion about the NSA revelations during its conference.

"Don't get me wrong -- the Snowden thing is huge, but I do not believe that the security community found all of this wildly surprising. I think it was more of a, 'Oh, so that's your strategy?' moment for us. Privacy is a very real concern for both the security and intelligence communities, and we look forward to encouraging conversations about this very topic on-site," he says. "Everyone that comes to Black Hat is serious about security, has a professional level of interest, and is here to engage and improve that conversation."

A blue jeans-clad Alexander served as the keynote speaker at last year's DEF CON conference, and was seen milling around the conference, including stopping in to watch the live social engineering contest held there. Alexander told the social engineering contest team, led by Chris Hadnagy, "'You're doing great work, keep training people on' this," Hadnagy told Dark Reading in an interview after the conference.

Meanwhile, the security industry is debating DEF CON's kicking out the feds -- namely the NSA, CIA, and FBI -- this year.

"You don't 'ban' groups you disagree with. You engage with them more than ever. Have hacker cons become an echo chamber afraid to engage?" David Marcus, director of advanced research and threat intelligence for McAfee, said via a tweet today.

Robert Graham, CEO of Errata Security, argues that Moss' "uninvite" to the feds is actually a smart business and conference-organizer 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. 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," Graham said in blog post this morning.

"The easiest way to do this is by reducing the number of feds at DEF CON, by asking them not to come. This is horribly unfair to them, of course, since they aren't the ones who would be starting these fights. But here's the thing: it's not a fed convention but a hacker party. 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," he wrote.

Security expert Nick Selby, meanwhile, called the move by DEF CON "self-defeating."

"It is crucial to continue the excellent relationship that is simultaneously collaborative and competitive and wary and aggressively distrustful that has been the status quo for two decades. The relationship between hackers and feds is symbiotic. To deny this is shortsighted, wrong and panders to a constituency that is irrelevant to our shared goals," Selby wrote in a blog post today. "It also defies the concept that, 'Our community operates in the spirit of openness, verified trust, and mutual respect.'"

He noted that most hackers should be well-aware of signals intelligence community reconnaissance, as well as the influence that it has had on security operations. "Who in the hacking community or around it would not have understood and known about the activities engaged in by the signals intelligence community? Who among the hackers can say that they have not legitimately attempted to do everything in their power to understand what the SIGINT crowd does if only to use some of those wicked-awesome tactics, techniques and procedures themselves?" he wrote.

"If you're a hacker and trying to understand how to perform reconnaissance, how could you not have researched what the SIGINT community was doing? When you consider the very phrase 'Operational Security' are you unaware that this phrase and this discipline itself has been perfected and documented by professionals within the government (who share this in open sources)? The concept of 'tradecraft,' too, has been advanced and turned to art form by the government."

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Dark Reading Staff

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