Five Unexpected Observations From A PR Flack at DEF CON 24

Posted on August 11, 2016

By Angelique Faul

As an attendee of Black Hat for the past decade, I have seen the show transform from its edgy, dissident roots into the giant industry “who’s who in security” event it is today. Heck, even Snapchat had a booth and there was a concert by, guess who? Coolio.

Don’t get me wrong, Black Hat is an amazing show. We highly recommend it to clients; it’s chock full of leads and we always have a great time. I mean, how could you not? The point is that there are other security events out there — PSR, B-Sides, RSA — to explore. With this in mind, I finally made a point to check out DEF CON to see what the hype is all about.

DEF CON is one of the longest-running underground hacker conferences and it still maintains a raw, disruptive vibe. Aside from the yelling coordinators (I’ll get to them in a second), it’s almost refreshing. As I roamed the floor, talked to vendors and attendees, checked out the swag store and sessions, there were five unexpected things I observed:

1. It takes a village. For those who haven’t been, DEF CON is an entire world. The floor is comprised of “villages,” or stations teaching attendees how to hack anything and everything you can think of. From the Social Engineering village, to the Lockpick village (one of longest running and most visible) to the Packet Hacking village (Wall of Sheep), and the newest BioHack village.

At the Car Hacking village, a video game-like simulation let you get behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger, veering off course, changing speed and even spinning out. Other vehicles, like the Chrysler Jeeps and Fords were taken apart to access the circuitry inside. Consider the implications here as we move toward an era of smart cars. Bottom line: it takes villages to make a hacker.

2. Hey newbie, turn off your Wi-Fi! Every security person knows that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks pose real vulnerabilities. Throughout the show, sessions and demos showed how easy it is to hack a phone via something as simple as its Wi-Fi setting. Not only can someone monitor your traffic, but they can very easily obtain all the information on that device. When you think about how many networks most of us sign into during a given day, it’s a real eye opener in terms of what may be at stake. They even had “The Wall of Sheep”, where people who had left their Wi-Fi open were hacked and had their credentials posted on the wall!

3. Not your grandfather’s vendors. The most typical vendor at DEF CON? The most atypical one you can imagine. Instead of the FireEyes or Distils (had to get in a client mention) you find at Black Hat, I knew not one vendor. Well to be fair, Rapid7 did have a tabletop, but I thought they only threw amazing parties.

From lock-picking providers like TOOOL to Security Snobs (pitching High Security Mechanical locks) and Unix Surplus (with equipment from the 1990’s and before), the scene resembled a dystopian movie.

Wi-Fi Pineapple for example, is a tool that you can buy and use to hack into devices via the Wi-Fi network at your location. By dropping one of their boxes into a plant or next to a display shelf, suddenly the free Wi-Fi you think you’re using at Starbucks isn’t actually provided by the store. And if you’re an NSA contractor working at the coffee shop, imagine the risk!

4. Why are the goons yelling at me? No matter where you went, loud event coordinators, properly named “goons” were everywhere. Yelling seemed to be the preferred way to communicate to attendees on when events were taking place, where to go and what to do. This apparently was the strategy to keep things in order — having rogue attendees warrants rogue ways of communication. Did it work? I have to say yes. I did what I was told!

5. Your badge is a computer. Here a badge is more than just a badge, it’s a minicomputer with buttons and flashing lights that you can’t understand. Unless you’re a hacker and are up for the challenge of figuring it out. I’m not sure anyone did, but I saw plenty of people trying. Above is a photo of my own, unhacked badge. Of course, there was a prize for hacking it: a lifetime entry to DEF CON and some serious bragging rights. That just might be a prize worth hacking for.

I’m not sure if I’ll attend DEF CON again, but I’m glad I did. It was an experience I’ll never forget! See you in February for RSA, a much more boring bunch…

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KF Shares Our Most Meaningful Reads 

As PR professionals, we can’t help but gravitate towards the written word. Be it in the form of a novel, short story or a few lines of prose, language inspires us to reflect upon ourselves, others and the greater world.

Yes, there are a plethora of reading lists out there. But not all books are created equal. Not all push us to think, laugh or cry, or touch us at the very core.

So we present to you a different kind of list – one of our agency’s most meaningful reads. These are the books that have helped shape who we are, led us to new discoveries and have kept us reading way past our bedtimes. As this series continues throughout the summer, we hope that you are inspired.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I had back surgery in high school and missed an entire quarter of school. While working with a home tutor, we read To Kill a Mockingbird out loud and I became immersed in the lives of Atticus, Jem, Scout, and Boo. Not only do the themes transcend time, place, and age, but this book reminds me of my own hardships and how literature can act as a great escape from reality. – Lauren Hillman

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. I recall how I felt reading The Fountainhead for the first time. I was 21, living in Australia, and borrowed a friend’s dog-eared copy. A literature major with time on my hands, I re-read entire chapters on the beach and late at night.

There is underlying philosophy to Ayn Rand, but I was captivated with the story of the architect who stood alone, shattered convention and battled those who would bring him down. This book moves me at every place in life. In my twenties, it was Roark’s individualism – I had major wanderlust and little interest in a career. In my thirties, it was his integrity – given my career, I was fascinated with the newspaper’s power for good and evil.

I’m a big believer in integrity, admire those brave enough to defy convention and am still completely engrossed in the life of Howard Roark. – Robin Bulanti

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Let’s be honest … a lot of the books I read are what many would consider trash, guilty pleasures designed purely for entertainment. However, last summer I read a book that was different — a book that actually made me think about the world and about life. This book is about a young, blind French girl whose world collides with a German soldier in occupied France during WWII. The story reminds us that in a world that can at times seem full of darkness, there is good all around us — and that when things get tough, we have no choice but to be strong and push through. – Tanya Carlsson

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed, by John Vaillant. This hard-to-put-down book succeeds on multiple levels. It’s an excruciatingly sad examination of the monumental devastation that over-foresting has exacted on British Columbia. It’s a gripping anthropological exploration of the ancient people who populated some of the most remote territory on earth. It’s a real-life murder mystery (no less powerful because the victim is a tree). Vaillant is a magically good writer who makes it all work, and I was deeply moved by this book. – Steve Eisenstadt

Oh, The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss. This book was given to me as a college graduation gift from my brother (which holds tremendous love and value in itself), and it’s a book I often refer back to. It’s frequently cited as a bedtime book for children or a great sendoff for those starting a new chapter in their lives, but it’s also an inspirational reminder that we hold the power to move mountains every single day. Whether life is hammering us with lemons or we’re grabbing the bull by the horns, knowing the possibilities that lie in front of us provides an encouraging and empowering start to each day, so we can go and get on our way. – Marta Debski