If you haven’t by now heard that Feds have been politely asked not to attend DEF CON this year, you may be living under a rock in the information security community. The news came Monday in a post on Defcon.org by Dark Tangent (aka Jeff Moss) entitled, “Feds We Need Sometime Apart” which politely states the following:
"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.
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.
This will give everybody time to think about how we got here, and what comes next."
This of course has sparked much debate and left many to ask the question “why?” Especially given the nature of Moss’ governmental advisory role, it would seem that this move is at best symbolic in nature and even somewhat hypocritical. There has not been much to explain why this move was made, other than some vague statements made by Moss to Reuters recently where he stated, “”The community is digesting things that the Feds have had a decade to understand and come to terms with,” Before going on to say, “A little bit of time and distance can be a healthy thing, especially when emotions are running high.” (Reuters)
It would be easy to assume that this announcement is a move to denounce the the activities allegedly revealed by Edward Snowden and certainly there are a number of articles that have been released discussing exactly that. However, I think, to truly understand why this announcement was made you would have to understand Jeff Moss, or better yet, Dark Tangent, and while we’ve barely ever even met, there is one run-in I had with Dark Tangent that I think was somewhat revealing of his personal motivations as a DEF CON leader.
Years ago, in 2007, I met my now good friend Ming while sitting on the Wall of Sheep (WoS). Ming and I quickly bonded over pwning sheep and handing them to the WoS folks to post. Since that time meeting up at the WoS, collecting packets, sharing information, sharing tools, etc has become somewhat of an unspoken annual tradition for Ming and I. This tradition, is one that I look forward to all year. Early on, working on the WoS made me a little nervous, when you’re on the outside of the tables set up for WoS, everyone could see your computer, everyone knew what I was doing, it was just a little uncomfortable. That was until an incident involving Dark Tangent.
In 2008 (I think) during DEF CON at the Riviera, Ming and I were sitting on the WoS like we had the previous year, collecting packets and enjoying ourselves, when suddenly from behind us a stern, authoritative voice shouted, “YOU RIGHT THERE, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND STAY RIGHT THERE!!!” Stunned (and raised with Catholic guilt) I immediately spun around thinking, “Uh oh, I’m in trouble.”
To my surprise however, I looked up to see that a gentlemen was standing in a skybox hovering over Ming and I taking pictures of us with a high powered camera and a telephoto lens…I was shocked. Tangent instructed a DEF CON goon to watch the man and make sure he did not move. No more than a minute later Dark Tangent appeared on the Skybox balcony to confront the man. To be frank, I mostly went back about my business at that point and am not entirely sure what happened next, however, I believe, Tangent removed the gentlemen’s camera memory.
As an industry analyst, I often attend DEF CON with a Press Badge, and know and understand that their are certain standards around my interactions with others at the CON as a result of that level of attendance, some are unspoken standards, like never publish anything unless all parties involved know and understand that it will be published ahead of time (basic etiquette really). Others are well-spoken and documented. One specific documented standard surrounds how and when a picture can be taken (a screenshot of the standard from Defcon.org can be seen on the right), each and every Press pass attendee must sign an agreement regarding photos each conference. The gentlemen in the skybox was not abiding by these standards, whether he was press or an attendee. As a result, Dark Tangent took care of the situation.
He took action, not because Ming and I were complaining (heck we didn’t even know it was happening), or because he wanted to be flex his power. Rather Dark Tangent took care of the situation and likely created the standard in an effort to promote a safe and comfortable environment for people like Ming and I or really any other DEF CON attendee, which in its core has always just meant, “hackers.” It was frankly successful, it was the last time I felt even a slight bit uneasy working on the Wall of Sheep and the memory largely fell to obscurity in my mind. That is until I read the announcement requesting that Feds stay back this year.
I believe that Dark Tangent feels as though he has a responsibility to make sure that hackers may operate in the most comfortable environment possible, one that is conducive to sharing thoughts and having some fun while doing so. That is the core of what DEF CON is. To preserve that, there are both spoken and unspoken standards of how specific groups may behave and within reason they are held to those standards. Hackers, are a naturally paranoid crowd and while since 2001, hackers and Feds have intermixed to a point where in a lot of cases it is very difficult to separate the two, recent media has made a fair portion of the hacker collective uncomfortable, as such an unspoken standard has been broken. Maybe Dark Tangent respectfully requested that Feds refrain from the conference for the time being, not as an affront to the Feds or as a political statement, but rather in an effort to preserve the core of DEF CON, which is again, to provide a comfortable environment for hackers, nothing more, nothing less. I think that is something everyone could and should appreciate.