When the FBI Found Out About Def Con’s ‘Spot the Fed’ Contest

Spoiler alert: feds go to hacker conferences.

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May 5 2015, 10:21pm

Image: Eldad Carin/Flickr

It's no secret that feds—federal agents—are regular attendees of hacking conferences.

In 2001, a Russian hacker was arrested after speaking at the famous Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas. In 2010, federal agents were found looking for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during New York's biannual conference Hackers on Planet Earth, or HOPE.

The fact that law enforcement and intelligence officials attend hacking conferences is such an open secret that hackers often play the famous "Spot the Fed" game during conferences, and the game is a recurring joke.

In 2013, when I first went to Def Con, I spotted a guy holding a big cardboard sign that read, in huge letters: "Free HI5's 4 Undercover Feds." While I was trying to take a picture of him, a couple of attendees high-five'd him. Of course, there's no way to know whether they were really feds or were just doing it for fun. (If you're wondering, yes I also spotted a fed but I can't talk about it.)

Back in 2000, however, not everyone at the FBI was aware of this tongue-in-cheek game.

In a document released last week on Muckrock, an agent with the FBI's Las Vegas squad explained what Def Con is and added that something "of interest to all personnel" attending the conference could be the "Spot the Fed" contest.

"Attendees at Def Con appear to pride themselves on their ability to spot federal law enforcement officers, winning a T-shirt if they do so," the agent matter-of-factly wrote.

The agent, who admitted that he found all the information by Googling it and downloading a bunch of pages from the official conference website, also noted that there is "growing interest" in the conference, not just from the FBI, but also hackers.

"For that reason, it can be expected that numerous subjects of interest may attend this conference," the unnamed agent concluded.

The agent, in the interest of thoroughness, also attached the web pages from Def Con's website that describe the "7th Annual Spot the Fed" contest.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the FBI disclosed 131 pages in response to the FOIA requests, which basically asked for "any materials" related to Def Con since the conference's first edition, there is practically nothing else worth noting in the documents. Some information is redacted, some of it's just plain boring routine.

In any case, if you're curious, the full document is embedded below.