LAS VEGAS -- "Dark Tangent," the founder of the annual hacker convention known as Def Con, isn't the arch-criminal you might expect, stealthily breaking into corporate America's most private systems. Instead, he's having corporate America over for lunch -- and its managers are paying handsomely for the privilege.
But the drift towards corporate style was obvious at the prelude to Def Con, which looked like a convention of accountants or appliance salesmen. Attendees even wore name tags with actual names written on them instead of hacker monikers like "Mudge" or "Se7en." The talks were highly technical, featuring plenty of abbreviations (VPN, SNMP, GSM) that would be meaningless to non-engineers.
The reason, quite simply, is that the Def Con hackers aren't welcome at most places in Las Vegas. Over the years, they've applied their intellectually devious talents to pernicious ends, hacking into casino Web sites and elevator systems, and, one year, ripping dozens of smoke detectors from the ceiling of a hotel hallway.
"Two years ago, I would have been figuring out how many sea flares to bring to put into swimming pools and fountains," said Christian Valor, who goes by the name "Se7en" online. "I would have been figuring out how much mayhem I could create."
Two years ago, he wasn't interested in hacking or the convention. Claims of 'sea flares' for pools and fountains contradicts the "underground history" he fed reporters for months.
These days, though, Valor won't even hang around for Def Con. He came only as a guest speaker to share his experience as a former "phone phreaker" -- someone who breaks into telephone systems -- with law enforcement and military personnel. Valor spoke not at the Black Hat Briefings, but at a second conference of the hackers and the hacked -- this one with 40 attendees who paid $800 for the two-day affair.
Valor said he once took great pride in being a part of the hacker underground, but he said he had recently turned 30 and did not have time to play around anymore. "I have to pay the mortgage, I have a car payment," said Valor, who said he'll earn $90,000 this year as a consultant.
90,000 is far from his earnings last year. This also directly contradicts his claims of 120,000 and 160,000 in other articles or public forums.
"There's been a changing of the guard," said Valor, inhaling a Marlboro Light. "If these young guys want to take over the world, let them. We're too old."
That said, Valor planned a late-night get-together with fellow hackers Thursday to discuss how to talk their way into getting free hotel stays, airline tickets and first-class upgrades. Which is to say that the real business of Def Con may have just begun.
The opening conference "was like going to a university class," said Hutchinson of Ernst & Young. Def Con "will be like the frat party," he said.