Def Con Has Always Been Straight, White, and Male, But It’s Finally Changing

The largest hacker convention in the world isn’t perfect, but for many it’s the best they’ve got.

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Aug 11 2016, 8:10pm

Members of Queer Con. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

In his classic 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, journalist Steven Levy traces the outline of a "hacker ethic" in an effort to determine what unites this amorphous group of technophiles. He eventually arrived at six core tenets of a hacker ethic, namely: total access to computers, freedom of information, tendencies toward decentralization/anti-authoritarianism, using computers to create art/beauty, using computers to improve life, and judging others based on their hacking skill rather than class, gender, race, age, or other irrelevant criteria.

Anyone who spends a weekend at Def Con can't help but see each component of Levy's hacker ethic in action. Attendees at this annual hacker carnival have access to smart cars and other top of the line IoT products for their hacking pleasure, there are seminars on how to overthrow a government, biohackers can augment their body with RFID chips, and supercomputers compete against one another in contests while generating stunning visual displays.

In fact, the only element of Levy's hacker ethic that seemed to be lacking at Def Con last weekend was the final criterion. One of the most striking things about the conference is that of its roughly 20,000 attendees, the overwhelming majority of them are straight white dudes. For the participants who don't fit under this umbrella, this can lead to tense, awkward or offensive situations. At this year's conference, for example, I heard tales of persistent sexual harassment at a hotel bar near the conference, a guy who was refusing to let women ride on the elevator with him (I'm not kidding), and a Def Con Jeopardy game that quickly devolved into sexist banter about dicks.

"[Hacker Jeopardy] was more of a drunken mess than I remember," said David Helder, a software engineer who has been coming to the convention intermittently since Def Con 8. "When I walked up and took a picture, the question was something about John Holmes' penis size and my thought was that if you were a young woman attending Def Con for the first time and walked into that room, I don't know what you'd think of that. Some people think it's good fun, but based on the comments I got from the tweet, a lot of people don't."

While it's a good start that blatant sexism and misogyny is called out on a public forum like Twitter, this doesn't necessarily mean that there is any action taken to rectify or punish it. Some Def Con attendees feel that sexism is institutionalized at Def Con, and not just the unfortunate result of a few assholes who happened to be attending.

"I think it's unusual to see this behavior at a sanctioned event," said Helder. "It does seem that Def Con has improved, but what surprises me is that they're making an effort in some parts and then you're seeing the opposite of what they're intending to do at events like hacker Jeopardy."

Others I spoke with at Def Con agreed with Helder that these incidents seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and said that in terms of fostering an environment of inclusivity, the 24th annual Def Con was the best yet. This partly has to do with an effort from Def Con organizers to bring more female speakers and goons (the name given to the volunteers helping run Def Con) into the fold, but for the most part this change was brought about by the very attendees who once felt marginalized or threatened at a conference they hated to love.

Case in point is Sarah Clarke, who has attended Def Con for the past 18 years and organized the first-ever Tiara Con this year as a Def Con affiliate geared toward women hackers. According to Clarke, Tiara Con was birthed at last year's Def Con when a few dozen women gathered at Las Vegas' Flamingo hotel to eat lunch and shoot the shit. This year Tiara Con got organized and attracted hundreds of attendees over the course of the weekend who came to network, attend workshops on workplace empowerment, and socialize in an inclusive environment.

Jennifer Granick, director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Information and Society, giving a talk on the state of the internet's utopian dream last Friday. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

For Clarke, who can still vividly remember the conference's early days, she's amazed at how much Def Con has improved and continues to work at transforming itself for the better.

"When I talk about how far we come, I mean that I'm not afraid or uncomfortable at Def Con," she said. "Def Con 9 was a shitshow. People were doing and saying the most horrible things to each other. It still happens here, but not as often—it's lightyears better than it used to be."

Clarke cited several reasons for why the conference has improved, but she thinks it is largely the result of a huge amount of support from Def Con organizers to diversify the conference by backing projects like Tiara Con, as well as the fact that many of the attendees who were at some of the original Def Cons back in the early 90s now have daughters of their own.

"People who are still problem children tend to be from that time period," Clarke observed. "But those people are now having daughters, realizing what idiots they were and changing their behavior. Actually, most of our major money [for Tiara Con] came from fathers who wanted better for their children."

This opinion is buoyed by Elena Elkina, the cofounder of Women in Security and Privacy, who attended Def Con for the first time last year. Elkina was so impressed by the spirit of the convention compared to the more corporate Black Hat conference that usually proceeds it that she contacted the organizers about having her organization table at the event. According to Elkina, the response from the Def Con organizers was overwhelmingly positive and they donated space to her organization without hesitation.

Elkina said that she also noticed a marked increase in the number of female attendees at this year's conference compared with last year's. She's also been impressed with the number of men who have approached her wanting to learn about and get involved with her organization. Although she was dismayed when she heard about the Jeopardy panel snafu, Elkina says it's crucial that women work to improve the conference rather than refuse to return next year.

"We need to do something about [the sexism] rather than complain," said Elkina. "Don't just say this is wrong, talk to organizers who are doing things about it and see how we can change the perception."

Elkina (third from the right) and her Women In Security and Privacy Crew. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Even though Elkina emphasized the need to work through Def Con's problems when they arise, there are occasions when not returning is the best course of action. According to Aaron Tebrink and Jason Painter, one of the co-founders and current president of Queer Con, respectively, Queer Con had to take a break two years ago after Rio Hotel, which was hosting Def Con that year, began making trouble for the Queer Con attendees.

"We had some issues not with Def Con itself, but the hotel and how it was dealing with the LGBT community," said Painter, who didn't want to go into details of the issue. "So we isolated ourselves from Def Con for that one year. We were kind of missed and a lot of people were upset that we broke away that year, but they understood why."

In addition to having acquired a reputation for hosting the best parties at Def Con over its 15 year existence, Queer Con also provides a radically inclusive space for LGBTQ attendees. Like Tiara Con, Painter said that Queer Con was born of the realization that there was a significant gay contingent attending Def Con back in the days when only 2000 people attended the conference in total, but there was no support network for this community.

Tebrink (bottom left), Painter (far right) and the other Queer Con organizers. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Fifteen years later, Tebrink and Painter said that people often tell them the only reason they come to Def Con is for Queer Con. This year they had so many attendees that they rented out an entire 105-room block at the conference hotel and had hotel guards outside their communal suite where the party never seemed to stop. In addition to partying, the organizers of Queer Con worked on fostering safe spaces for members of their communities—this year, for instance, they hosted a transgender meet up for the first time and received overwhelmingly positive feedback.

"We knew there was a large segment of Def Con in the [transgender] community and they never had a voice," said Painter. "People were coming up after [the meetup] saying it's the first time they've been able to talk to other people and find out who these people are."

Despite their successes at Def Con, Painter and Tebrink feel that the security and privacy field as a whole has a long way to go before it even comes close to reaching the level of inclusion seen at Def Con.

"While society is becoming more accepting, the infosec and IT industries haven't quite grasped that diversity," said Painter. "Def Con is trying to bridge that gap. Whether it's the black, the grey or the white [hats], everyone is supposed to come and be on an equal playing field."