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The ban on feds at Defcon draws a mixed reaction

Jul 12, 20133 mins
CybercrimeData and Information Security

Call for U.S. government workers to avoid security conference rankles some cyber warriors, gets cheers from others

A recommendation that federal employees stay away from the Defcon conferencein Las Vegas next month has the security community buzzing.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me, especially since so many hackers have built up a close relationship with the government over the years, ” Jeffrey Carr, CEO of Taia Global, which sponsors Suits and Spooks conferences, said in an interview.

The call for feds to stay away from Defcon came on Wednesday from conference founder Jeff Moss, also known as Dark Tangent, on the Defcon website. “When it comes to sharing and socializing with feds, recent revelations have made many in the community uncomfortable about this relationship,” Moss wrote.

“Therefore,” he continued, “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.”

Moss’s recommendation is puzzling, given his background, Carr said. “I was shocked to see it, especially since Jeff Moss has worked for DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] and consulted for the government.”

Moss did not respond to a request for comment, but told Reuters that non-participation would be voluntary. “We are not going on a witch hunt or checking IDs and kicking people out,” he said.

Carr called Moss’s move “a drastic over-reaction.”

Much of the value of forums like Defcon comes from the networking among those attending, Carr maintained. “If there are no feds, I’m not sure there’s much value left,” he said.

Although hackers and three-letter government agencies have been at odds in the past, in recent times, relations between the groups appeared to be improving. At Defcon last year, for example, NSA boss General Keith Alexander delivered a keynote address at the event.

Conference participants have even engaged in playful teasing of government spooks attending the forum by running “spot the fed” contests. Apparently that won’t be the case this year.

“It’s regrettable that Moss has shunned the federal government, just a year after Keith Alexander keynoted Defcon,” Sam Glines, CEO and co-founder of Norse Corp., said via email. “I fully understand why Moss would want to avoid the disruption associated with government participation, so soon after the Snowden debacle, but now is the time for a vigorous public debate on the subject.

“The hacker community and federal government share many common values and should focus on finding the common ground between national security and Internet privacy,” he said.

Others, though, see the feds and hackers sharing the same venue as incongruous at best. “Defcon is one of the most important and most esteemed conferences in the world,” Bogdan Botezatu, senior e-threat analyst with Bitdefender, said in an email. “It’s a place where cyber-enthusiasts and freedom fighters join to exchange personal experiences.”

“Now imagine,” he continued, “that the feds come to join a party in order to learn the tactics and improve their intelligence about people who fight for freedom of speech and diminished government surveillance. It’s offensive.”

While Defcon appears intent on shunning government workers from its environs, a rival conference, Black Hat, which is being held in Las Vegas around the same time, will have a more welcoming attitude. Black Hat’s agenda includes keynotes by the NSA’s Alexander and Brian Muirhead, chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.