Jetlag & Swag: My Defcon experience

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Looking back to my first Defcon…When I arrived, I met my colleagues who decided to tell me that we had entered the Mystery Box contest. That began 3 days of sitting in the contest hall or a hotel room working 20 hours a day on the challenge. I only saw one talk the entire weekend, at 4pm on Sunday and I fell asleep during it. But I had the best time ever and vowed to come back, that was 6 years ago.

I was back to Las Vegas again this year attending my 6th Defcon. Although experienced, I’ve not yet been enough to be considered a veteran (that seems to be your 10th), but enough to know not to piss off the Goons, I get the ‘in jokes’, and I recognise particular faces but not enough to be known. This year saw the con expanding again, larger areas for contests and vendors as well as new areas for tamper evident devices and the usual lockpick/wifi/hardware villages. This year we didn’t actually get the final attendance figures at the closing ceremonies, but it would have been interesting to see if the numbers are expanding as well.

My Defcon experience starts on the Wednesday when I arrive. I get there early for two reasons. Firstly, to get to as many free, post BlackHat, vendor parties as possible. Secondly, I know jetlag will knock me over after a day and so I have the Thursday buffer (this has absolutely nothing to do with partying with free booze all night). This year’s parties were somewhat subdued. However, upstairs at the RSA party there was a great view and good company; it was great to catch up on the news from the previous year. This is also usually what the first day entails, finding out the office gossip, who left, who did what to whom and, as I had just left my current company, me unloading on what went on there.

Thursday was the usual acquire badges and swag day. I thought the badges were good this year, very clean and neat compared to last year’s odd Egyptian motif (ugly, ugly badge even if it was an ‘electronic’ badge). This year’s theme revolved around a deck of cards (of which I bought a pack from the swag booth) and the surprise announcement in the opening ceremony talk that we had a new symbol to go along with the ‘skull and crossbones’, rotary dialler and floppy disk, a keyhole symbol. It fits well but I am not sure which came first, the idea for cards thus creating the need for a fourth or the fourth symbol leading to the idea of cards.

As far as the sessions were concerned, I am not sure if it was ironic, poignant or plain coincidence that the first talk I went to had the word porn in the title, but it was interesting none the less. ‘ACL Steganography – Permissions to Hide Your Porn’ (Michael Perklin) centred on hiding the information inside the Windows ACL’s. Other session highlights included Sam Bowne and Matthew Prince detailing IPv6 DoS attacks as well as discussing what happened with the Spamhaus attack. Mudges ‘War Story’ talk was just telling stories from his career and the Evil Foca session all stood out. Robert Stuckes talk on ‘DNS May Be Hazardous to your Health’, was really interesting and gave me a great “wow, that’s really cool” moment, I learned when registering domain names by 1 bit common DNS names or defunct botnets you can glean all sorts of information.

I also did the usual comedy jam and recognise awards consisting of their usual shenanigans. Unfortunately there were talks I didn’t make it to, in some instances the room was already full (Track 4 I am looking at you), during others the jetlag hit me hard this year, so it’s a good job the talks were also streamed to the room, good excuse to take a nap listening to cloud security (which will put anyone to sleep).
I also spent a good bit of time in the contest area as two of the guys I met up with were competing in the capture the packet competition at their first con. Simply put, they have gigs and gigs of network packets and a list of questions. The aim is to extract the relevant information from the capture such as a VoIP call.

They put all the packets together and then replay them to listen to the call, extracting the answer from what was said. These guys spent a good deal of the con going through filters, practicing, replaying captures over and over. Essentially they did the same I did at my first con. My approach back then was to throw myself into something, I missed a great deal of everything else but they came to the same conclusion I had. This was the greatest thing ever and they will be coming back for sure.

As for nights out, well, it always feels if you don’t have a beer in hand by mid-afternoon something feels wrong. A group of us did manage to get out and about, taking the first timers to the Hofbrau House and getting them spanked over a shot of schnapps. Of course one of them also managed to win the stein holding contest and was deemed the Stein King for the night. He can’t win at capture the packet but can certainly hold his beer!

We also attended the 303 party, great bunch of guys who have always welcomed me even though I’m an outsider. The rest of the parties did seem a little spread out, I am not sure the idea of a long row of small ‘pubs’ for a pub crawl came to fruition. It seemed a good idea but it just didn’t have the uptake, maybe next year ‘Ye Olde English Pub’ is on the cards. Of course, some of the good times were sitting with a small group of guys and just chatting: Old jobs, new jobs, who did what to whom, “did you hear about….”, “let me tell you this story….” and just having a laugh.

What about the negatives?

It’s difficult when this is so much fun for so many people. Yes, I could put the cliqued things like, the lines for the ticket (which was cleared by 11 am anyway) or the swag line (this one they actually do need to fix), or the fact there was some less interesting talks, however I think the biggest negative was myself. I just didn’t get into it as much as I did the previous years, I don’t know if the con has expanded just that little bit too much, which makes it too big to get the feeling of fun and energy, or if I was too jet lagged, or even in the wrong frame of mind. But I came away feeling a little deflated. Everyone you speak to says you have to make the con your own and that you get out what you put in, and maybe that is my problem, it has become routine for me. Do I need to throw myself into contests? Do I need to talk to as many random people as I can? Do I *shudder* attend other cons? This isn’t to say it was a total bust, I had a great time, I learnt lots of new things and I got some cool swag, but I missed that sitting-in-the-hallway-with-random-strangers-just-talking-shit moment but then I didn’t seek it out either.

About the Author:

n754104697_117659_9976Neil Johnson | @tweek_uk | securitybuzz@slighttweek.com

I have been involved in the security industry for over a dozen years with positions ranging from commercial to the banking industry as well as high end financial exchanges. Always curious to learn new techy things.  Enjoys pub quizzes, 80’s films and t shirts.  Once worked with someone ranked in the top 10 for counter-strike in the UK.  Has been known to dance in shops. 


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