DEF CON: From Failed Party and Movie Inspiration to Global Dominance
The first DEF CON was held in 1993 as a farewell party for founder Jeff Moss’s friend. The friend couldn't make it and what started out as an almost-failed party plan turned into one of the biggest technology events held each year.
At Exabeam, we’re not only interested in developing the newest cybersecurity, we’re also fascinated by what we can learn from older security technologies. That’s why we recently created a History of Cybersecurity 2019 Calendar. Each month features key dates in cybersecurity history, along with a related trivia question and other things of interest that occurred in that month during years past.
This is sixth in a series of posts featuring the Cybersecurity Calendar where we look at the beginnings of DEF CON. We’ll be publishing more history around the cybersecurity dates we’ve researched throughout the year. If you think we missed an important date (or got something wrong), please let us know. You can also share your feedback with us on Twitter.
The farewell party that keeps going
Every summer, hackers gather in Las Vegas for a weekend-long convention. Called DEF CON, the event features speakers, security challenges, and competitions, called “hacking wargames.” But as clever as the name “DEF CON” is, it is very similar to a term used by the U.S. military to denote stages of defense alerts.
The very first DEF CON was held in 1993 as a farewell party for founder Jeff Moss’s friend, a fellow member of a hacking network called Platinum Net. The friend left town early, saddling Moss with a party in progress and no guest of honor. Not one to be deterred, Moss decided to make a hacking party out of it, inviting everyone connected with his cybernetwork, and a great idea was born.
Who is Jeff Moss?
Now that you know how DEF CON was founded, you may want to know who its founder actually is. Jeff Moss goes by the online nickname The Dark Tangent, but don’t be fooled by the cute name. Moss has an impressive background, starting with his first IT job at Ernst and Young. When his going-away party was a hit, the 100 or so attendees encouraged him to plan another one, and the event has been going on every year since.
A few years later, Moss started the Black Hat briefings, now known as Black Hat USA, which is similar to DEF CON but more geared toward a corporate audience. In 2009, Moss was signed to the Homeland Security Advisory Council and, later, chosen as co-chair of the council’s Task Force on Cyberskills. Along with his fellow council members, Moss helps ensure the U.S. government is prepared to handle the many security issues seen today.
“Shall we play a game?”
If you’ve ever seen the 1983 movie WarGames, you probably can make the connection between hacking and the U.S. military’s DEFCON warning system. The U.S.’s defense alert system was mentioned throughout the movie, playing an integral role. In the film, Matthew Broderick’s character lived in Seattle, which is where Moss lives. His choice of places to nuke was Las Vegas, which happens to be DEF CON’s location, making it one too many coincidences for Moss to ignore.
Another bit of trivia on the genesis of the name: “CON” short for convention has been used since the 1980s to brand fan conventions, starting with the first science fiction convention, called Lunacon, and continuing today with ComicCon and many others. “DEF” is on the number 3 on most telephones, with phones being a reference to phreakers. It all came together in Moss’s mind, and now DEF CON is well-known to hackers everywhere.
DEF CON goes global
DEF CON has only continued to grow over the years, spreading all the way to the other side of the world in 2018. The first DEF CON outside the U.S. was held in China last year in Beijing. As the Vegas convention approached its 20thanniversary in 2013, a documentary crew was given full access and the result, DEFCON: The Documentary, is now available online.
As the convention’s followers have grown, smaller groups have sprung up across the country. There are multiple groups in many states, with their names denoting their area codes. The DEF CON in Phoenix is DC602, for instance, while New York City has DC212. There are also conferences that have branched off from the main one, including DerbyCon and SummerCon.
Careful, you’ll go to jail
Each year, hacking enthusiasts flock to Vegas to compete for big prizes, including cash and free entry to next year’s event. But it’s still hacking, so as you can expect, occasionally you get some questionable activity.
One of the best examples was in 2001, when Russian developer Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested during the convention for a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It turned out, he and some other Russian developers had created a way to get around protections on electronic books. U.S. authorities were only able to arrest him because he’d come to town for DEF CON.
What started out as an almost-failed party plan turned into one of the biggest technology events held each year. DEF CON’s founder is considered one of the most respected cybersecurity minds in the country, if not the world, and his expertise continues to help the U.S. government. But perhaps most importantly, his annual event helps new generations of hackers hone their abilities so they, too, may someday be able to protect IT systems from cybercriminals.