Hackers Are Now Leery About Inviting the NSA to Their Conventions

Philip Bump

DefCon, one of the premier gatherings of hackers in the United States, has a message for the government officials who normally attend: Not this year. After all, if you can't trust the NSA, who can you trust?

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The announcement appeared at the conference website yesterday, in a post titled, "Feds, We Need Some Time Apart."

For over two decades DEF CON has been an open nexus of hacker culture, a place where seasoned pros, hackers, academics, and feds can meet, share ideas and party on neutral territory. Our community operates in the spirit of openness, verified trust, and mutual respect.

When it comes to sharing and socializing with feds, recent revelations have made many in the community uncomfortable about this relationship.

The post, written under the pseudonym The Dark Tangent (a.k.a. Jeff Moss, as Ars Technica notes), then suggests a "time-out" so that both sides can "think about what comes next."

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Federal officials—not just from the NSA—generally attend with the goal of finding new recruits. Hiring hackers is a necessarily fraught venture, but hiring hackers to work for the government is trickier still. Those who take a practiced interest in getting around technical boundaries may not do well under the regimented structure of a division of the Department of Defense. If you need an example of the risks, consider the NSA's most famous recent hacker: Edward Snowden.

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Just a year ago, the scene was different. NSA chief Keith Alexander made his first appearance, even sporting a T-shirt bearing the logo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He did his best to cultivate those in attendance.

Sometimes, you guys get a bad rap. From my perspective, what you're doing to figure out vulnerabilities in our systems is absolutely needed. We've got to discover and fix those.

Unfortunately, he was also a bit inaccurate in his descriptions of the work his agency did, as reported at the time by PC Magazine. "You're going to have to come in and help us," he said as part of his recruitment pitch. But then he went on.

The NSA boss … also denied that his agency kept dossiers on "millions of Americans."

"The people who would say we are doing that should know better. That is absolute nonsense," Alexander said, referring to former NSA employees who have told the media that the agency does just that.

Which isn't exactly true. If DefCon "operates in the spirit of openness, verified trust, and mutual respect," you can see why the group might be skeptical about a repeat performance from Alexander.

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Hackers interested in hearing from / engaging with / being hired by the NSA will have another opportunity to do so. A few days before DefCon, Alexander will speak at another hacker conference in Las Vegas, Black Hat. The Guardian reports:

"We are honored to have General Alexander join us this year at Black Hat in Las Vegas for the first time. We couldn't have asked for a better time to welcome him," said Black Hat general manager Trey Ford.

It is not known whether or not Ford was gleefully rubbing his hands together while saying that.

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Photo: Alexander testifies before Congress earlier this year. (AP)