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When men were boys and boys were stupid

Written by Robert X Cringley
Excerpted from


Forgive an old reporter's favorite reminiscence of days gone by when men
were boys and boys were stupid -- DefCon 1.

I was the only reporter at DefCon 1, which attracted somewhere around 150
hackers and crackers to the old Sands Hotel back before ConAir Flight 1
smashed it to bits for a movie. The year was 1993 or '94 and InfoWorld,
where I worked in those days, wouldn't pay my way, so I went on my own. It
was surreal. I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore when my cellphone rang in a
session, setting-off four illegal scanners in the same room. As I left to
take my call in the hallway I wondered why I bothered.

There were two high points for me at DefCon 1. First was the appearance of
Dan Farmer, then head of data security for Sun Microsystems. Dressed all
in black leather with flaming shoulder-length red hair and a groupie on
each arm, Dan sat literally making-out in the back row until it was time
for his presentation. But the presentation, itself, was far more
entertaining than the smooching. In a series of rapid-fire slides he
showed dozens of ways in which crackers had attacked Sun's network in
recent months. He explained techniques that had failed at Sun but would
probably have succeeded at most other companies. It was a master class in
computer crime and his point, other than to prove that Dan was the
smartest guy in the room, was to urge the crackers to at least be more
original in their attacks!

But the best part of DefCon 1 was the battle between the kids and hotel
security. Contrary to popular belief, breaking in to Pentagon computer
systems is not very lucrative, so many of the participants in that early
DefCon did not have money for hotel rooms. The Dark Tangent handled this
by renting the single large meeting room 24 hours per day so it could be
used after hours for sleeping. Alas, someone forgot to explain this to the
6AM security shift at the Sands. Just as the hardy group of adventurers
returned from a late-night break-in at the local telephone company
substation, fresh security goons closed the meeting room and threw the
kids out.

It is not a good idea generally to annoy a computer cracker, but it is a
very bad idea to annoy a group of computer crackers bent on impressing
each other.

The meeting reconvened at 9 or 10 with the topic suddenly changed to 
Revenge on the Sands. Gail Thackery, a U.S. Attorney from Arizona who at
that moment had approximately half the room under indictment, rose to
offer her services in representing the kids against the hotel management.
Thackery had been invited to speak by the very people she wanted to put in
jail. I told you this story was surreal.

Adult assistance might be nice, but a potentially more satisfying 
alternative was offered by a group that had been busy since being evicted.
They explained that they had breached the hotel telephone system, gained
access to the computer network, obtained root level access to the Digital
VAX minicomputer that ran the Sands casino, and were ready at any time to
shut the sucker down.

It came to a vote: accept Thackery's offer of assistance or shut down the
casino. Of course there was no contest. They voted to nuke the casino. Not
one to be a party pooper, I voted with the majority. Gail Thackery,
feeling her lawyer's oats, was perfectly willing to be a party pooper,
though. Lawyers can be that way. She explained with remarkable patience
that opting en masse to commit a felony was a move that we might just want
to reconsider, especially given the three strikes implications for some of
the older participants. We could accept her help or accept a date with the
FBI that afternoon. The Sands, which was ironically owned by the same
folks who put on Comdex, never knew how close it came to being dark.

Do not try this at home.

It was a thrilling moment like you'd never see at a Comdex, MacWorld, or
even at Java One. I'll never see its like again. Everyone who was in that
room shares a pirates' bond. And though I can't defend what we almost did,
I don't regret it. And like the others, I wish Gail Thackery had stayed in
Arizona and we'd shut the sucker down.

-- By Robert X Cringley

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