All photos courtesy of the author
The atmosphere of DEF CON is a complete paradox. On one hand, you have the hacker, who prides himself on his individuality and his desire to watch the world burn. On the other, you have an envrionment filled exclusively with hackers and their kin who are endearingly sharing their latest exploits, skills, and general culture. When you put them together, you get an atmosphere of healthy competition where everybody wins, although some people win more than others. Now in its 21st year, DEF CON is back at Las Vegas' Rio Hotel, bringing together thousands of computer conoisseurs together in an orgy of mohawks, laptops, and a hipster attitude towards the government—they were hating the NSA waaay before it was cool.
Contests are an integral part of the conference, providing attendees an opportunity to show off their skills and see how they stack up against everyone else. They include forensics puzzles, "Pimp my Rascal," coding races, password cracking, a beverage cooling contraption challenge, cryptography, and a bunch of other stuff that is too vague or secretive to make any sense. They provide an opportunity for attendees to learn by doing, not just by listening to presentations, and are just one of the many ways that DEF CON contributes to helping hackers talk in real life and not just on IRC.
Certainly the most interesting all-around contest is Black Bag, which requires contesteants to use a mixture of lock picking, forensic, and espionage skills to break into an office and steal as much data as possible.
Although it is supposed to be a team event, Rance ended up competing solo after the rest of his team, Porn-o-claus, was M.I.A., and still managed to blow his opponents out of the water with skills he claims he has been perfecting since he was about three feet tall. He was the only competitor to successfully open every lock and steal all the data.
He also snagged all the bonus points for things like using a UPS to hot swap the desktop so he could steal it without powering it off, and taking a compromising picture of himself in the "office" with a massive dildo, as seen above. He is also at the top of my list for any and every heist I ever plan.
Some contests were more about endurance than speed, however, and what better way to test endurance than a good old fashioned LAN party for ultimate dominance in the discipline of nothing useful at all. (Granted this isn't your middle school LAN party—they also had to hack their way through challenges to earn bonuses and points.)
Sometimes winning is about exposing the losers, and at DEF CON, those are the n00bs that have no idea what they have gotten themselves into by showing up anywhere near the conference. The Wall of Sheep is a perennial favorite, proudly displaying the unsuspecting schmucks who are blissfully unaware of the passwords they are parading in front of thousands of hackers.
Clearly, having your personal information stolen is a rite of passage, and seasoned conference attendees are happy to pick up whatever you leave lying around. At least people had the wherewithal not to plug their phones into these charging stations located directly underneath the Wall of Sheep, since chargers are a great way for someone to sneak malware onto your device these days.
There are lots of great opportunities to get started on useful skills to help you elevate your status as a social deviant, like learning how to open seals with shims and remove tamper tape with solvents in the Tamper Evident Village.
Sometimes winning is about making new friends and learning with them, as these people are seen doing in the Hardware Hacking Village, playing with soldering guns and components they vaguely understand ...
... but the fact that they have little idea what they are doing means that the seasoned professionals have their work cut out for them to save the day, such as the lovely Chris from L.A.'s Null Space Labs, seen below sorting out beginners' SNAFUs.
I am crowning JC my hero of the day though, for his incredibly impressive display in the Social-Engineer Capture the Flag. After turning on his impressively commanding "acting voice" and posing as a top level executive from a major American car company, he convinced some poor unsuspecting (and very ditzy) sales agent at a car dealership to give him information such as what kind of software and hardware they use, as well as who they use for pest control, janitorial services, and security and how often they come. The atmosphere in this room was by far the most excited and anxious, and everyone was on the edge of their seats, struggling to contain their laughter as JC had his way with the naive girl who had clearly never considered the fact that someone might call her pretending to be someone else to get sensitive information. (Sorry for no video, didn't want to violate the Wiretap Act.)
After his thoroughly enjoyable performance, someone shouted, "JC! Have my baby!", and then four 10 year old kids ran into the room who were playing some other kind of capture the flag, successfuly evading a U.S. Army sniper who was going for head shots with a NERF rifle.
There are many more contests going on throughout the weekend and certainly many opportunities to demonstrate prowess of intellect and typing strength. Some of the more interesting ones happen at night that are not really appropriate to post pictures of, or just plain odd. Some of the more tame events this evening included 6-plus hours of 4' jenga; Hacker Jeopardy where the contestants were being groped; and Hacker Karaoke. The latter of which I didn't dare venture into, as the sound drifting into the hall made the screams of burning cats sound like Aretha Franklin.
Evidently there is no way to "win DEF CON", though the general consensus is that the top of the pack is awarded with black badges—a prestigous honor that grants lifetime access to DEF CON—that are generally given out to winners of contests and conference good samaritans. My standards for success are a bit lower: I'm just trying to stay away from the Wall of Sheep and Hacker Karaoke.