Jeff Moss

The Story of Defcon


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Jeff Moss, this time, going by the name of The Dark Tangent, a hacking handle I've been using for over twenty years. You may know me from starting Defcon back in, boy, 1993, 1994.

You know we're having our fifteenth year anniversary this year in 2007, so you do the math.

If you don't know me from Defcon conventions, you might know me from before then, I operated a number of bulletin boards back in the day. They're all idle messaging networks back before the internet was really popular.

And what you might now know is the history of Defcon, where it came from. So, let me tell you a little story. Back in the day when everything was dial up, 300 to 1200 baud modems, stored forward messaging systems like the FIDO protocol, everybody operated bulletin boards around the world. And the bulletin boards were loosely affiliated into networks and the networks I'm talking about are mostly hacking and phreaking and information sharing networks.

And I just happened to have a bulletin board setup and I'd had an okay job so I paid my phone bill unlike most back then. Everybody else was phreaking their connections. And so I became a big hub for eleven of these international networks, you know HackNet, PhreakNet, PlatinumNet and HitNet, all these different networks from back in the day.

And because of that I was connected to pretty much all the communication that was going on in the underground, that was active in those days. And one of the networks PlatinumNet out of Canada, his dad was moving on to a better job and he wanted to throw a party for everybody, to say good-by to them, all the people who made up his PlatinumNet.

Well since I was a U.S. hub and most all the dial-up users back then were all Americans, he wanted me to help organize it and wanted to do it in the States. And so we talked a little bit and I decided we should probably do it in Las Vegas and right about the time we were finalizing the details, his dad took the job early, moved, disappeared, never heard from him since.

So, I was stuck holding the bag. I had to do this party and since I was already a hub for these eleven other networks, I just invited everybody. And -- And back then the internet was starting, was getting more popular, more than just college students and so I got on IRC and I invited everybody on PoundHack, PoundPhreak, back then there was only one PoundHack, only one PoundPhreak. And then I dialed up all my other bulletin boards I knew of and announced it there, sent faxes to everybody, sent faxes to U.S. Secret Service telling them we're coming, FBI, everybody.

I was just telling the world we're doing a hacking show in Las Vegas. I figured they were going to figure out one way or the other we were going to be there, so may as well give them a heads up and be really up front about it. Plus it would sort of force a reaction out of them. So, we picked Las Vegas or I picked Las Vegas because I'd never been to Vegas and if the show was a total failure I wanted to at least be bankrupt and sit by the pool with a foofy piña colada drink with an umbrella in it.

And -- And for some of you who know the history of the word Defcon, it was also used prominently in the movie WarGames. And the main character in the WarGames lived in Seattle and the city he decided to nuke was Las Vegas. So there's a little bit of a back story there. So, also for you phone phreakers, DEF is number three on the phone so I had a little tie in to DEF number 3.

So, comes time for Defcon. We've got like maybe a hundred people showing up at the door. We're accepting only cash. I have no idea who's coming and who's not until they actually show up, and I've got like maybe twelve speakers. The speakers we had was Dan Farmer, one of the only legitimate UNIX security experts I could find back then. And he came and spoke and talked about an automated tool he was thinking of writing. You know, he was doing all these audits at Sun Microsystems and he want to automate all of his script, all of his tools into one thing to save time. And he's thinking of maybe calling it SATAN. But he hadn't written it yet and he was thinking about it. Talked about what would go into this tool.

Well I think a year later he released it and it got him on the cover of Time magazine. Everybody sort of had an interesting take on things and the show was a success. We went from say a hundred people the first year, to two hundred the next, three hundred the next, and it grew and it grew and it grew. And as it grew the internet security space changed around us. You know, dot com bubble start forming.

And it's really funny. First three years everybody at the show was there cause they cared. You know, you couldn't get a job in security. You did this cause you loved it. Then all of a sudden you could start getting jobs. Then all of a sudden money entered the equation. And then feel the underground rapidly changed around Defcon 4 to 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, until the bubble burst.

And you know instead of talking about the routers and their packets, and their firewall rule sets, they started talking about stock options and, you know, and setup options and how much they're getting in salary and benefits. It's really kind of an interesting infusion of what happened to that -- that culture. Sometimes I think about it like what happen in the counter cultural music revolution where everybody went to San Francisco to listen to bands or grunge in Seattle. And then the rest of the country wants to hear grunge. So what do you do? Stick all the band members on airplanes and you fly them around. And you pay them a lot of money and you release records and you release CDs and documentaries. And pretty soon they are getting paid a lot of money and -- and the culture gets kind of infected by money.

They're successful but it changes the culture and that what happened in the hacking world. So, now there's tons and tons of hacking events and it's an inevitable change. Defcon's gone through the changes, the ups and the downs. And -- And we really saw a peek of it the year before the dot com bubble we had about seven thousand people at the show. It was just an insane amount of people. And probably half of them didn't belong there. But they were there. And now, we're right around probably five thousand people. And the people who are there now kind of really get it.

And I think anything that's interesting, you know you either have to evolve or you die and -- and Defcon's been really nimble and we've -- we've pretty much evolved every year. I don't see that changing. When we started it, or when I started it, I remember the pain of putting on that show was so great, it took so much time, and so much effort, and so much stress that, you know, I came home and I went to sleep for like a month. And about two months later somebody emails me and says, "Hey that was a great show, that was really fun. You know we could probably fix it. You know, you can probably change something and when are you doing it next year?"

And it had not dawned on me that this was something that could happen every year. It was supposed to be a one time party. And, but that got me thinking. Yeah I can do this again. And I can make some changes, and I can invite, you know different speakers. I could probably use a better printer to print up my program. Sure I'll try it again. And then it was so much pain I said never again. And this has been happening for 14 years you know. Every year you want to improve it and every year it's totally painful, but now we have huge corps of supporters. We have over thirty or forty people who help us to put it on every year and it's -- it's taken on in...its own life.

Around Defcon 3, the show got so big, so many things started happening that you know, as the organizer I don't know what's going on. I looked to my friends to tell me what happens at my own show, because you just can't follow it at all. Too much crazy stuff's going on from. Yeah, I remember one time I was taking the elevator ride to go up to my room. The elevator doors opened and there was a door from a GTE telephone van in the door, in front of the door sitting in the elevator. It's, like, oohh that can't be good. The doors closed. Doors open. Now there's a satellite up link dish sitting in the middle of the elevator. Like, I don't want to get in there. Doors close.

You know, you end up -- you end up finding stuff out [in] the strangest ways. Somebody took off the door panel of the elevator and reconnected all the buttons and put the panel back on the wall. So it was just a total lottery of whether you'd get off on the right floor or not. And they played pranks like that. The GTE door prize turned into a door prize later on and it got passed around and people would sign it and it would come back each year to Defcon. People would take pictures around it. And pranks would just start happening.

Two years ago I learned about the bed jumping posse. I didn't even know these guys exist. They've been around for years apparently at Defcon. What they'll do is they'll come and knock on your door on your hotel room. And if you let them in, five or six of the bed jumping posse will run into your room, jump up and down on your bed until it either breaks or they get tired and then they run out. That's all they do. No technology, just the bed jumping posse.

So a lot of crap goes on at this show and -- and I always look forward to hearing reports and reading reviews and finding out what happened at my own show. So if you do come along, you know, pay attention, make friends and tell me what in the world happened.

See you next year.

See Also: Wikipedia Entry on Jeff Moss

Research Note: Transcription by Diane Wiegand

Page Updated: 2/19/24

U.S. Copyright Status: Text = Uncertain.


























































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