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Convention exposes hackers' dark underbelly

August 11, 1998
Web posted at: 10:45 AM EDT

by Ellen Messmer


LAS VEGAS (IDG) -- The Def Con hacker convention held recently at Jack Gaughan's Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas drew a crazy mix of the evil, the curious, the leather-clad, the frat boys, the blue-haired cyberpunks and the feds in surveillance, who failed miserably to blend in.

Amid blaring rock music and a haze of cigarette smoke, the hacker group The Cult of the Dead Cow at one point took center stage to show us how truly evil they are. One cloaked, hooded member of the hacker group demoed the group's latest product. As a crude insult to Microsoft and its BackOffice suite, it's called "BackOrifice" - malicious code designed to let the attacker take over the victim's Windows machine.

The 120K-byte BackOrifice Trojan horse program "will make it easy for a 5-year-old" to screw things up, shouted The Cult of the Dead Cow product presenter, hidden behind a mask. BackOrifice can be uploaded to someone else's Windows 95 or NT machine through e-mail or buffer overloads. Once there, it can be used by a hacker to create directories and copy files on the remote machine, and to gain access to the network.

A version of BackOrifice for Unix and a Java client are on the way, the masked man claimed.

For its part, Microsoft issued a kind of "what, me worry?" statement that said, "Windows 95 and Windows 98 users following safe computing practices are not at risk, and Windows NT users are not threatened in any way by this tool."

Just to show how rotten they are, after the demo members of The Cult of the Dead Cow tossed CDs said to contain pornography to the audience, setting off a scramble among the thousand or so (mostly young guys) in the crowd.

In the midst of this hacker hell, federal agents trying to blend in seemed at a distinct disadvantage. With remarkable precision, the hackers, wannabes and cyberpunks picked out several agents from the National Security Agency (NSA), Army intelligence units and the Department of Defense's office of criminal investigations.

Compelled to admit their affiliation, each agent was offered an "I am the Fed" T-shirt.

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Amid the slot machines' mechanical chiming, it was a weekend of late-night partying for the attendees, while the daylight hours were filled with advice on how to clone GSM cell phones, eavesdrop on satellite-based traffic and attack casino systems (the casino's customer-service LANs and electronic signs are hard but doable; the slot machines, forget it; and tiny cameras are everywhere).

One Def Con attendee - no names, please - who came all the way from Amsterdam for the event, said GSM phones are prevalent in Europe and it would be hard to resist using the information he had picked up at Def Con.

San Francisco-based criminal defense attorney Jennifer Grannick showed up to remind the serious hackers and the merely curious that breaking into networks is illegal whether damage is done or not.

Grannick said the FBI called her before she came, urging her to advise Def Con attendees to cooperate by talking when caught. "That's B.S.," she said. "Don't talk to cops." She also reminded hackers not to throw evidence in the bushes when they see the feds at their doors, and to get a lawyer, presumably one like herself.

Though it's impossible to know what lies in the heart, many attendees seemed to be computer-savvy college kids enjoying a weekend walk on the wild side. Breaking into computer networks may be a rite of passage into manhood these days, getting the power rush, showing off the skills.

One Def Con attendee said he was drawn to this counterculture because his weight problem made him feel something of an outcast in the "real" social world, while his online friends were impressed with his coding skills.

And there's apparently a thin line between the hacker and the security professional: Companies such as Secure Computing, which helped organize the event, were known to have their eyes out for talent that can be squeezed into a corporate suit rather than a jail cell.

In addition, intelligence agencies around the world are said to be trying to recruit young hackers into the spy game.

Richard Thieme, who gave the Def Con keynote, is a former Episcopal priest who dropped out to join the cyber avant-garde to lecture on the "digital construction of reality." Thieme said young hackers have told him stories of being offered full-time jobs as high-tech spies for foreign governments and the NSA.

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