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June 29, 2014

Hackers, crackers and feds, oh my!

NORMAN — After a five-year sabbatical, I am once again preparing myself to visit sunny Las Vegas to attend the annual Defcon computer security conference. Billed as “the largest underground hacking event in the world,” Defcon is always attended by an intriguing mixture of people, including computer professionals, amateurs, manufacturers, vendors, all branches of the U.S. government and military, political activists, and yes, even scary “hackers.”

In the early days of computing, those involved routinely called each other “hackers,” which simply meant that you had a desire to experiment, learn and perhaps figure out how to make your equipment perform tasks for which it was not originally designed. The computer industry as we now know it was founded by hackers who were willing to constantly push the envelope in pursuit of the ultimate computing experience.

Thanks to an ill-informed news media looking to label malicious computer activity, the term “hacker” has now come to define computer criminals up to no good. But, it wasn’t always that way; back in “the day,” Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both happy to be known as “hackers.” Computer criminals were called “crackers.” I refer you to the excellent book, “Hackers,” by Steven Levy, for a more thorough and enjoyable look at the subject.

Coming from around the world, most Defcon attendees are there to learn. Those like myself do not consider themselves to be super-elite computer geniuses, but rather, are looking for information to at least keep themselves in the race. The field of computer security is constantly evolving, and there’s no better place to get a quick crash course in the latest techniques used by the black hats and the white hats.

With seminars such as “Hacking traffic control systems,” “The year in digital civil liberties,” and “Home automation and defensive security measures,” there’s something for everyone. For many years, there has even been a game called “Spot the Fed,” in which one can win a free t-shirt by exposing the identity of a “Fed,” as in, someone who works for the U.S. government. Perplexingly enough, the Feds regard it as all in good fun.

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