SecurityBSides: The Best-Kept Vegas Secret

Getting to SecurityBSides made me think of all the Vegas movies where a casino boss takes a cheater out into the desert and buries him in the sand.
Getting to SecurityBSides made me think of all the Vegas movies where a casino boss takes a cheater out into the desert and buries him in the sand.After getting into a towncar at the Caesar's Palace valet stand, the driver took me through an alley, down a dirt road, and into a construction site before finally arriving at a nondescript gated house on a remote cul-de-sac. After assuring the driver that this address was correct and where I really wanted to be, I took a deep breath and walked through the front door. The young lady waiting inside the door who took our names and accepted donations gave the experience the feel of entering a speakeasy. I was surprised there was not a password, secret knock, or mandatory decoder ring presentation.

After this build-up you might assume that I was at this house to purchase guns, drugs, cheap women, or something equally scandalous. Nothing could be further from the truth, I was there to see some presentations on security. While Black Hat had multiple tracks, almost 100 speakers, and entire ballrooms at Caesars Palace -- SecurityBSides had a den converted to a presentation room, a pool, a vending machine dispensing soda while playing music, and several coolers with free soda.

You'd think this setting warranted watered-down speakers, but no: this intimate gathering drew some big names, like Metasploit creator HD Moore. The topics ranged from proximity-based identity theft to earlier Twitter attacks, to advanced war-dialing techniques. Each of the talks was focused more on fostering intellectual debate than promoting the speaker's latest book, or their company's product sales pitch. After listening to a few talks, I began to forget about the way conferences normally run -- with the airplane-sized rooms, antiseptic talks, and the 10-15 minutes of Q&A time afterward where there is neither time nor ability to delve deeply into any topics.

SecurityBSides was nothing like those large cattle-call type conferences. It had the vibe of a hacker commune with lots of interesting people to talk to, room to setup laptops, and to watch as casual conversations turned into brainstorming sessions. One of the nice features of this informal format was that the audiences of 25-30 attending researchers felt okay divulging details of projects they are working on -- giving a peek under the hood to see the engine and talk spark plug,s rather than just glossing over the exterior.

This sense of intimacy and detail was aided by the speakers' choice of whether they wanted all, none, or a portion of their talk to be recorded. Speakers were not only available for questions, they took the time to sit outside the presentation "den" and engage in full discussions of various aspects of their talks. They were willing to chat security as long as folks were willing to join them.

The most interesting part of SecurityBSides is that the coordination, calls for speakers, attendance lists, and marketing was almost entirely by word of mouth. And in this day and age, that means Twitter. SecurityBSides was marketed as an alternative to the impersonal nature of Black Hat. After spending time there, I would say the organizers were enormously successful. I am happy to see that the organizers are planning a similar event opposite during RSA in San Francisco.

David Maynor is CTO of Errata Security. Special to Dark Reading