ACM - Computers in Entertainment

DEF CON 22 from a Veteran’s Perspective

By Richard Thieme

Def Con 22 was the 19th time I have spoken at the hacking conference. At the first, Def Con 4, there were 375 people. Def Con 22 was attended by 15,000. The many streams that flow into this chaotic ocean of humanity reflect diverse points of view and self-interest. We all come to get something, and we wouldn’t keep coming back if we didn’t get it.

I once planned a much smaller convention so I know that once you crank one up, it’s a magnet for complaints. But the fact is, the many-ringed circus of Def Con continues to deliver the goods for thousands of infosec professionals, policy wonks, and intelligence agents. It’s a party, but a lot more.

It’s often said that the greatest value at Def Con is networking, the private conversations where real gold is exchanged. That’s true, but they couldn’t happen without a supporting framework of talks and contests and games around the edges. Many talks deliver fascinating information—the talk on drones that filled the Penn and Teller auditorium and the panel of experts discussing real and imaginary threats to commercial aircraft come to mind—but the most significant data is delivered by softer voices in hallways. The truth about real threats, real defenses, and the larger context of a global conflict conducted through information and communications systems, media, intelligence and counter-intelligence operations—those are the deliverables.

Every year, I value most what I learn from everyone else. Most people at the CON are more knowledgeable than I am in most ways. If I have had success as an author and professional speaker for 21 years, it’s because I learn from everyone and integrate, synthesize, and articulate what I learn in a helpful way.  It’s a mistake to think of ourselves as independent cells, swollen bubbles of ego floating through the air, instead of tiny cells in a body that is impossibly vast and complex. The bottom line, for me, is that Def Con 22 was a festival of learning and reunions, of wall-to-wall conversations on every conceivable subject. 

Our real task is to use our talents to contribute to the energy in the universe. We each have about a million heartbeats to do that. Transforming energy into information is our task and the task of the universe itself. As Shaw said, we hold this torch for only a few moments, and we ought to make it burn as brightly as we can. We ought to be all used up when we die.

Def Con is a meritocracy of friends and strangers, an extended family that enables us to navigate our paths by the torchlight of doubt and chaos. It’s a feast for need-to-know machines, and the food is there for the taking. 

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