Everything that Rises must Converge

Ten years ago, summer of 2002, I was really excited to be going to DefCon, the hacker conference in Las Vegas, for the first time. This year, 2012, I had the ability to go, and decided against it.

There were a lot of things acting as motivating factors. The hacking culture I knew ten years ago doesn’t seem to exist anymore– it’s been replaced by “information security.” Ten years ago, DefCon was famous for the people who would show up and sleep on the side of the pool at the Alexis Park, taking sponge baths in the bathroom because they didn’t have a place to stay. The people who were young and passionate about tech but were too young to afford luxury. Last year at DefCon, I felt a heavy stigma to not be “immature”, to do “the right thing”, and an overall mood that our community had become one with the very government to which we had once been in defiance.

DefCon has many roots that predate me. As I understand it, it began after Operation SunDevil, carried out by Gail Thackeray and documented in “The Hacker Crackdown,” as a sort of meeting and reunion of the BBS days. If you look at the early websites, listen to the talks, and talk to the people who were there, there is a sense of rebellion, but there is also a sense of freedom. It was also much smaller. It had grown to 2000 attendees by the time I showed up, and this year I heard rumors of 20,000.

Obviously time changes a lot of things. The kids I hung out with in 2002 have all gotten older: at least one fell into drugs, another became disinterested in computers, many more have gotten married and had kids, have a mortgage, a job, and anything else in the long list of that American transition into “adulthood.” More than once, I’ve heard words like “nobody cares” and “I have my family to think about”, in the same jaded fashion Peter Bogdanovich portrayed in “The Last Picture Show.”

I had originally planned to go this year, the 20 year anniversary, as a final homage to the once-exciting event, the place where I met a lot of friends and learned a lot about myself. I was going to go hang out, ignore the conference, the toxic socially clueless harassment environment, and all the things that upset me. I was going to suppress that and give it one last chance. And then I saw that they were giving a speaking spot to General Keith Alexander, the Director of the NSA.

For someone who spent a decent amount of time both fearing the impending authority of “No Such Agency” and harboring desires to learn what secrets lay within, spending hours reaching through tomes like “The Codebreakers” and “The Puzzle Palace,” and overall admiring this enigma, this should have seemed like a golden opportunity, a physical manifestation of many dreams and realization of questions answered. However, with age comes wisdom.

In recent years, I have learned to strongly disagree with the notion that the only way to motivate people is to pit them against something. This notion follows that in order to be good, something else must be evil, and your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to stamp out the evil; when you’re done, you come home, get the girl, the medal, or whatever else will hold you off until the next mission. The challenge with this model is that you’re basing your happiness off of removing an unhappiness, and without that unhappiness you can’t actually be happy. To put it another way, once you have defeated the mighty evil, you no longer have an enemy by which to gauge yourself, and you must find a new enemy, creating a cyclic witch-hunt.

If you replace the words good and evil with words like “patriot” and “terrorist” or “attack” and “defense”, you begin to unravel the trap set by the Military Industrial Complex. For without conflict, what is the point of their existence? The drama writes itself. So then, what is an appropriate response? How do we re-merge these partitions, duct-taping back the shattered vessels of morality? We shall revisit this question momentarily.

Let’s jump back to the DefCon I knew ten years ago, where there were definitely hints of the rebellion of the early DefCons, which I actually call not rebellion but exploration and freedom, and fast-forward to this year. How do we react to the NSA on our turf? Perhaps we should pass the conch to the 18,000 other folk who have shown up in recent years, their opinions littered by what the media has taught them about DefCon, by how their jobs and school has told them things should be. Do we question authority or respect it? Do we treat everyone equally or give them special treatment based on the badges they wear? Do we remember what people have done in the past, or do we see that they look just like us and let them into our community?

Director Alexander wore no such medals or badges. He wore a “regular guy” t-shirt. The first DefCon photo I saw of him was being hoisted into an awkward bear-hug by a mid-30s fellow who seemed charming enough. The Director was accepted, greeted, smiled at, revered with awe. When the Dark Tangent, the original sin of DefCon, introduced him for his talk, the Director was greeted with applause, and his speech (or should I say, job pitch?) was welcomed. At the end, DT middlemanned the questions from the audience, perhaps to make sure nothing too daring would be asked. After all, we want to encourage and fasten this new relationship, right?

It’s worth pointing out that this year was the first to welcome several world-renowned musical acts (the Crystal Method!), and to my knowledge the first year in recent times the really elaborate and expensive hardware badges did not sell out. In fact, they were selling extras to anyone who wanted one, and it sounds like there may be online sales as well.

So DefCon welcomed Director Alexander, the same Director who had just a few months previous denied allegations of wrongdoing both posted on Wired and questioned in Congress. From the same NSA that pushed illegal wiretaps on American citizens, caused William Binney to resign his post, and may be setting up a massive data-mining facility in Utah. Not only did DefCon welcome him and give him special treatment, the attendees at DefCon thought it was grand, applauded him, and in his presence seemed to forgive any sense of wrongdoing.

Then again, I suppose it’s difficult to criticize someone when you both drink from the same kool-aid.

To revisit our morality question, what happens when you have been fighting these battles, these crusades, and finally come face to face with your opponent and discover a mirror? When you see them wearing the same clothes, speaking in the same lingo, and even having a beer with the same friends with whom you were going to meet? Is this a joining of forces, or have you crossed over the lines, without ever asking who created them or why, and become what you once despised? And there’s no need to keep asking those questions, because ¬†you already “get it”. After all, it’s your family. And the people who keep asking those annoying questions, who keep causing problems, and make it a little harder for you to get a paycheck? Well, they need to grow up.