Dec 29, 2013

Defcon vs. CCC

2013 was a big year in terms of information disclosure, leaks and whistleblowing. People reacted to the events very differently and shared their opinion online on social media platforms, Blogs and their websites as well as offline face-to-face and on conferences. I gathered some first-hand conference experience 2013 on America's Defcon and the German Chaos Communication Congress. Since I was a first time visitor of both conferences I started to compare the conferences. Here is what I liked and disliked about Defcon and CCC and why you should be prepared for everything during a hacker conference - even for things like Quadcopters visiting you during mealtime.



Defcon

I split my impressions in different categories to make them more comparable between the two conferences. Defcon is an American Infosec conference taking place in Las Vegas since 1993. In 2010 the estimated number of attendees exceeded 10,000. In 2013 the number was estimated for around 13,000 or more. In 2013 the 21st Defcon was held in the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Organization and structure

As mentioned before, the Defcon takes place in Las Vegas in one of the major hotels. You usually have some huge conference rooms where talks are being held constantly in parallel during common hacker-daytime. A vendor area also exists where a lot of different products are presented and offers ranging from lock picking tools over technical books to hardware stuff. In 2013 there were so called villages. Lock picking village, WiFi village and tamper-evident village to be precise. Each village was dedicated to its respective topic and created to get people to work on stuff in a workshop-style atmosphere.
Some couches and tables were out there this year to sit down but you could clearly see that no focus was put on creating opportunities to sit down with friends or random people and hack things away together.

The entry fee for Defcon 21 was 180$ payable in cash at the counter. Finding a cheap hotel in advance for accommodation was no problem but public transport in Vegas was a nightmare. I did all traveling by foot or by taxi since I did not want to rely on the public transport system. Getting some decent food was rather difficult since there is only fast food around the Rio hotel and the restaurants at the hotel itself were pretty expensive in relation to the small amount of food you get for your money.

Talks and workshops

The quality of the talks as well as the technical depths was very diverse. Some very specific talks for domain experts coexisted with web hacking for beginners talks. Most talks in 2013 were about technical topics, some dealt with political, ethical or other issues but the main focus was really on Infosec. The workshops in the villages had offers for beginners to experts. The WiFi village for example had guided tutorials for building your own antennas and advanced WiFi Capture The Flag tournaments.

Atmosphere

Let's party! Raise your glass / bottle of Whiskey and grab a pal to have a drink with! Defcon is a lot about socializing and having fun together. Alcohol had a steady presence and was always just a few jokes and laughs away. Defcon is also a time to show off your offensive skills (at Capture The Flag), your re-engineering skills or whatever skillset you own. Actually this is an interesting point. I purposely did not chose the phrase "a time to share your skills" but rather to show your skills. Although there are workshops and awesome talks, the main focus of the conference is not about sitting together and building something by sharing knowledge. Don't get me wrong, everyone is helpful at Defcon and happy to tell about their projects. It is not a people problem but a matter of focus and purpose of the conference. Defcon is not designed for people to sit together in groups everywhere and to work on projects (except for the few intended workshops in the villages). It is more about having a big get together and have a good time to remember while having highly sophisticated technical discussions on the sidetracks.

What I liked

The feeling (the vibe) was brilliant. I really like how Defcon celebrates its hacker culture and works on its image. The Capture The Flag event was marvelous to watch and the accumulated offensive skill displayed was amazing, kind of Fast And Furious for computer people. Seeing, meeting and talking to people formerly only known from books, websites and podcasts was great. The technical depths of some talks and the expertise of the speakers were good. Everyone was friendly and open to talk to and to have a drink with. The whole Defcon actually was a lot of fun, starting with hacker jeopardy and ending with the late night parties in the transformed conference rooms.

What could be better

I missed opportunities to sit down with people and to look at and to work on stuff together. There were very few possibilities to grab one of the few spare tables or couches and gather together with fellow hackers. The food supply was not optimal in terms of price / performance ratio but this is just a minor issue.


Chaos Communication Congress 

The CCC started in 1984 (George Orwell anyone?) and is a yearly occurring international meeting of hackers. It was settled in Berlin until 2012. In 2012 the CCC was moved to Hamburg to cope with the growing number of attendees and to increase room for workshops and more talks. The number of visitors in 2013 was said to be at around 8,000.

Organization and structure

The space of the Congress Center Hamburg is big enough to fit the masses of geeks attending the CCC. The Congress Center is a building with 4 floors containing multiple huge conference halls. Smaller areas do also exist. Everywhere you go around the CCC you see sofas, tables, big pillows and other opportunities to sit down, lay down and relax or get together. Individuals and local hacker groups brought along their hardware projects and equipment from their local hacker spaces. On every corner you encounter LED-hacking projects, people working with custom made 3D printers, lock pickers or Quadcopter pilots. I started an interesting discussion with one when his Quadcopter suddenly landed by my side during mealtime. The organizers are very friendly and rely on their voluntary supporters, the Angels. Angels are conference attendees who help beginners, give out information about the conference facilities or are just there for question and answer sessions about the CCC. They are the equivalent of Defcon's Goons only lacking the tough bouncer-like image of the Goons.

Talks and workshops

The talks at the CCC differ very much in terms of topic and depth of detail. A lot of talks are actually not about classical hacking in the IT and electronic sense but about politics, art or biohacking. I just attended an interesting talk about Brain Computer Interfaces and am sitting right now in a talk about hacking Tamagochis. Talk about diversity. There are some official workshops but in fact the whole congress is one big workshop. Everyone is working on something, building something or taking something apart. 

Atmosphere

I heard the saying that the CCC is like a big family meeting before I actually attended. I agree in many parts but I'd rather say it's a meeting of all of your creative friends you always wanted to gather in one place and to have fun with. The atmosphere is very familiar and very open. An emphasis is put on relaxation and giving people opportunities to come down and recharge their (biological) battery. What I find interesting are the cross references to (hacker) culture and arts. The hangout at the top level of the congress is named "Villa Straylight" (from the novel Neuromancer) for example. Other examples are improvised theater groups roaming the area and acting as well as food hacking workshops and tea / coffee workshops. One of the major halls is reserved for local hacker spaces to settle there and present their projects or just have a good time by sitting together. Noticeable is how much of contemporary, political events are critically discussed at the CCC. All in all, it's a dynamic, powerfully creative atmosphere. 

What I liked

I like the diversity of projects and hack spaces presenting themselves. The relatively cheap food and proximity to the city comes in very handy and makes the conference experience much more enjoyable since I do not have to constantly take a look at my budget or keep thinking about getting my next meal without being forced to eat another round of McDonald's cheeseburgers again. I also love the retro-gaming area where 5 beamers are installed and connected to consoles like SNES or Gamecube for people to play with.

What could be better

I tried hard to think about factors to improve but could not think of many things. The only thing that bothers me a little is the date of the congress since it is allocated between Christmas and New Year's Eve which is usually family-time for a lot of people. 


TL;DR: Defcon 2013 and 30c3 were great conferences. Defcon is about socializing and having fun together while having a conference. CCC is very similar but has a slightly different atmosphere. It is about having a conference and hacking things with friends while having fun together.




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