August 8, 2011, LAS VEGAS—Counting stopped at 10,000 when they ran out of the cool titanium badges that hang around attendee’s necks for the annual hacker conference in the desert, DEFCON 19. By estimates, some 15,000 to 25,000 hackers, cybercops and cyberkids attended DEFCON’s new, upgraded digs at the Rio this past weekend.
That’s right—cyberkids—of which there were an estimated 60 in attendance. Again these numbers are estimated because DEFCON doesn’t take data on attendees, only their cash, which is nominal at $150 per head given the depth and breath of classes and contests on lock picking, device hacking, computer and protocol attacks and defenses and so much more.
The kids were hard to miss as they were tended by adult guardians and taken through a variety of exercises, puzzles, games and competitions that their grown up counterparts have become adept at. As part of the program, these young cyber talents were shown the ropes and entered into their own “Wall of Sheep” hack and defend competition (rather than the more brutal adult version). They also enjoyed their own panel with the feds and a social hour geared toward youth.
When asked, the kids (ages 8-16) were all about winning their respective games and competitions, while toddlers and babies could be found conked out on mom or dad’s shoulder. One of those moms, sporting a toddler on her hip and with two kids in the DEFCON Kids program, said this was just the beginning and to expect next year’s DEFCON Kids participation to double or triple.
The point, say organizers, is to foster the next group of cyber warriors to defend networks and users from increasingly sophisticated cyberthreats. By nurturing their curiosity and desire to test the limits of technology, organizers also helped kids learn the value of responsible disclosure and how hacker research like the data and experiences presented at DEFCON can lead to systemic improvements.
Many other government and private sector organizations are also working to bring up the next generation of cyber warriors and responsible users, including the Executive Women’s Forum. At the Black Hat Briefings at Caesar’s Palace (held during the two days proceeding DEFCON), EWF founder Joyce Brocaglia hosted a receptio to recruit more volunteers for the Cyber Security School Challenge. Founded by the EWF, the challenge is a collaborative outreach program in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, (ISC)2, the National Cyber Security Alliance, and OwnYourSpace® to help educate youth on the topics of online security, privacy, and safety.
Educating and challenging our next generation of users and cyber warriors is a noble endeavor on all levels. Some, however, feel that the venue, Las Vegas with all its wicked ways, is not the place for impressionable youth. Having children present among hardcore (mostly good guy) hackers who playfully mess with the ATMS, slots and elevators, who insult and shock talk from the stage (sometimes lewdly), can also be a parental nightmare.
“Bringing kids to DEFCON is a bad idea,” says one father, a system admin who left two children home to attend DEFCON. “Las Vegas is no place to bring kids period.”
From how it seemed, the youngest kids were fully insulated from the late night Hacker Jeopardy and other events that get a little raunchy. The pre teens and teens that did attend the later sessions seemed to take the drunken game players, the partial strip downs and other antics in stride. Some of the young actually instigated the trip to DEFCON, bringing along their non-technical parents who’s eyes were wide with wonder ...