Computer geeks attending the world’s largest annual hacking party in Las Vegas next week will have a rare chance to rub shoulders with the head of the U.S. National Security Agency.
General Keith Alexander, director of the spy agency, will speak at the Defcon conference, marking the highest-level visit to date by a U.S. government official to the colorful gathering. Organizers expect some 15,000 hackers this year as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first U.S. hacking event that was open to the public.
The Pentagon disclosed the visit on Friday.
“We’re going to show him the conference. He wants to wander around,” said Jeff Moss, a hacker who organized the first Defcon conference while working as a messenger for a Seattle law firm. He now sits on an advisory committee to the Department of Homeland Security.
Alexander may choose to talk shop with the techies. He holds four master’s degrees, including ones in electronic warfare and physics.
Still, Moss said he expect there could be some controversy over Alexander’s presence among the diverse hacker crowd that attends the conference.
The NSA plays both offense and defense in the cyber wars. It conducts electronic eavesdropping on adversaries, in addition to protecting U.S. computer networks.
“I expect some people will say ‘You are a sellout for having someone from the NSA speak,” said Moss, who is known as the Dark Tangent in the hacking community.
But he doesn’t see it that way.
“One of the things I try to do at Defcon is take some of the hackers out of their comfort zone. I want to expose them to people they would normally not hear from,” he said.
“Don’t you think it’s important to hear what the most senior person at the NSA has to say? I’m interested in hearing what he has to say,” said Moss, whose full-time job is serving as chief security officer with ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which helps manage the infrastructure for much of the Internet.
Hackers come to the conference to exchange information about tools of the trade, socialize and compete in hacking contests.
There will be talks on attacking mobile phones and Google TV, more technical discussions on programming and discussions about government surveillance.
Defcon offers a side conference for children, Defcon Kids, which Alexander will likely visit. It also trains hackers to pick locks and has an annual contest to measure who is best at persuading corporate workers to release sensitive data over the phone.
Moss said he invited federal agents to the first Defcon conference, but that they politely declined. They showed up anyway, incognito. They kept coming, in bigger numbers, sometimes in uniform.
“We created an environment where the feds felt they could come and it wasn’t hostile,” Moss said. “We could ask them questions and they wanted to ask the hackers about new techniques.”
He said he’s spent a decade trying to get the head of the NSA to speak at Defcon, but he never imaged it would actually happen: “To me this is really validating of the whole culture.”