These reflections on a trip to a hackers’ conference reveal an emerging new culture: where the public and private are confused, identity is hidden, appearance is suspected, and surveillance is assumed. -Jeff
My arrival in Vegas has put me somewhat off my equilibrium. It’s twelve in the morning here, and through some trick of non-euclidian geometry, my cell tells me that it’s only been three hours since my flight left New York City at nine. I know that the time-difference has created the illusion that less time has passed than I perceived, but the streets of Vegas are indifferent, and beat out their manic, midnight tempo regardless.
I’m here, in search of Anonymous, that nameless, faceless organization that scares the pants off of politicians and public figures everywhere, a bogeyman, haunting the nightmares of middle-class boomers, and mid-level bureaucrats. This past Summer has seen a great uptick in the number of high-profile cyber crimes, many committed in the name of WikiLeaks, and I know that this may be my best chance to get a word with someone who knows about the splinter-group Lulsec.
Even as Jim, Frank, Karen and I make tracks across the desert highway in the rental car, fifteen-thousand hackers are making similar pilgrimages, converging on our location from all over the world. The leaders from every tribe come to DEFCON, one of the largest hacker conferences on the planet, bring the latest news and gossip from all corners of the world back to their local communities. Nobody knows quite what will happen, but whatever does will set the tone for the entire year.
First impressions, Vegas: a hooker thumbs a ride under a sign advertising six dollar prime rib. The strip is a hallucinogenic wonderland of dancing light, and architectural insanity. Each architectural monstrosity bound to its neighbors only by divergence, and difference. Each is more garish and twisted than the last. This city is a schizoid’s sandbox in the middle of the desert. The land here is barren. It produces nothing, and instead the city must leech resources and pastiche styles from other peoples, places, and times.
The casinos are empty. Nobody wants to gamble in this economy. The Hotel Rio seems to scrape by because of the conference, and I watch it gradually fill to the brim with hackers, until it seems we will run out of space to move. A quick duck into Caesar’s Palace or Palms will show the truth- the slots lie dormant. Lights and sounds, an unintentional parody, attempting to distract from the fact that the great gambling halls are almost entirely empty.
We stand in line for registration, and I have an opportunity to reflect upon my fellow conference-goers. The hackers in Hotel Rio, though representing various local and national institutions all over the world, seem somehow to have agreed on some sort of dress code: Ponytails, sunglasses, fatigues, and combat boots. Shirts with ironic writing, or perhaps the insignia of the last conference, or their local hackerspace, or, alternately, a suit and tie, or a jacket with the insignia of one government agency or another. Men and women both, clean cut, shorn bald, or mohawked in every color imaginable. Brilliant misfits and outcasts, they’ve come here to learn, build, and interact, to share their love of science and technology, and to learn about developments in the state of the art in their respective fields.
I’ve been here what feels like two days, now. Time has begun to blur, as Jim, Frank, Karen and I move between various presentations, in the day, and parties at night. We rarely sleep. The parties are where the true connections happen at DEFCON. After talking my way past three layers of security, I drink vodka and tonic in a suite with a built-in basketball court and jacuzzi. I used to have a purpose here, but I can’t remember it.
My quest to find Lulsec and Anonymous has almost been forgotten, as I stumble into a party hosted by Xerobank. The bouncer nods at me. I’ve lost my friends somehow, and am now traveling with two guys whose names I can’t remember. A DJ thumps out trance music from speakers that take up half of the suite’s living room. A projector lights up the ceiling with rainbow patterns calibrated to disrupt one’s normal optical functions. It makes me feel woozy, and I can’t stay in this room for long.
I push through the sweaty masses of dancing people, and through a door, into a bedroom turned smoking room. My eyes sting as I walk into the smoke cloud. All of Vegas is visible through the floor to ceiling windows that cover the entire wall of the bedroom. It’s a very flat city, flashing neon, arranged in a geometrically perfect grid, as artificial as Vegas itself, extending for dozens of miles out into the desert. Beyond that stand enormous rock formations, dark and brooding forms, silhouetted against the stars.
In this room lay people sprawled out on the bed and couch, or huddled together, smoking, in dark corners. Two on the couch wave me over, and we start talking. I ask them what Xerobank is, anyway.
“We’re anonymous! The kid yells, eyes glinting- or perhaps he’s just feeling the sting of the smoke, as I do. As he says this, my ears begin to perk up.
“We provide anonymous proxies. We don’t log anything, and that’s all you need to know!”
“Anonymous? I give the kid a skeptical look. He barely looks twenty. The brown goatee and handlebar moustache that he sports, covering skin too pale and papery for the desert, is still filling out.
“We support their struggle! Anonymous, Lulsec, Anon-Ops, they’re the same thing!”
“But don’t you think that the government will use Anonymous as a scarecrow, to pass more oppressive laws? All it takes is one person to act like an idiot under the cloak of anonymity, and politicians will point the finger at them-”
“The oppressive laws are already being passed. How many more will we tolerate!? We need to fight back! Facebook, on the fifth of November!”
At about this time, the hotel intercom system kicks in, and announces a general state of emergency. Some people panic, and stand up, but most understand that this is just an elaborate prank. More likely, someone has just compromised Hotel Rio’s VOIP network. The kid just laughs.
“But don’t you think Anonymous needs a face? Someone to relate to normal people?”
“No way, we’re a faceless mass! A face can be destroyed. A faceless mass can never be killed, or put in jail!”
The intercom cuts in again, and announces that the general state of emergency has passed. I never do get to reconnect with the kid. He’s right on at least one count — Anonymous is a faceless mass. I never even got his name.
Author’s Note: Some or all names in this article may have been changed to protect the innocent.