A US Senator, multiple members of congress, and dozens of congressional staffers and members of the intelligence community will descend on Las Vegas this weekend to rub shoulders with hackers at Def Con, one of the world’s largest hacking conferences.
Washington’s embrace of the hacking community comes amid heightened awareness of the threat of cyber attacks in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election and lawmakers realizing they need to get to grips with technology, Phil Stupak, one of the organizers of Def Con told CNN Business before the conference began.
Historically, Def Con has been a place where hackers poke and prod at flaws in systems — a practice that could cross the line into technically breaking the law. And while the conference has been welcoming to visitors from Washington, many Def Con attendees are at least a little skeptical of government.
A longstanding joke at the conference is a game of “spot the Fed,” where attendees see someone who moves a little too stiffly, or stares a little too intently, and might be either a government recruiter — or law enforcement. It’s not entirely a joke; the FBI has made arrests around Def Con, including British national Marcus Hutchins.
Hutchins, a cybersecurity researcher who gained notoriety for stopping the destructive worldwide virus WannaCry before being arrested after Def Con in Vegas in 2017, won’t face additional prison time, a judge ruled last month. Despite the natural tension, Def Con organizers want to bridge the void and they say there will be more members of Congress as well as federal and state officials attending this year than ever before.
It will likely be the largest presence the government has had since before 2013, when, in the wake of NSA analyst Edward Snowden’s leaks, Def Con founder Jeff Moss formally requested “the feds call a ‘time-out’ and not attend Def Con this year.”
But that has since smoothed over. “I think the record presence of both representative and administration reflect the reality that technology and security are built into our society,” Moss told CNN Business. “We are trying to breakdown the barriers between the people in tech who know what they’re doing and the people in Congress who know how to take that knowledge to make laws,” said Stupak, who is also a fellow at Cyber Policy Initiative at the University of Chicago.
Among the lawmakers slated to travel to Vegas for the event are Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Eric Swalwell and Rep. Ted Lieu. Def Con will, as it has in years past, host a series of election-related events, including hackers demonstrating potential vulnerabilities in real voting machines.