Hacker Summer Camp 2017 Planning Guide

My hacker summer camp planning posts are among the most-viewed on my blog, and I was recently reminded I hadn’t done one for 2017 yet, despite it being just around the corner!

Though many tips will be similar, feel free to check out the two posts from last year as well:

If you don’t know, Hacker Summer Camp is a nickname for 3 information security conferences in one week in Las Vegas every July/August. This includes Black Hat, BSides Las Vegas, and DEF CON.

Black Hat is the most “corporate” of the 3 events, with a large area of vendor booths, great talks (though not all are super-technical) and a very corporate/organized feel. If you want a serious, straight-edge security conference, Black Hat is for you. Admission is several thousand dollars, so most attendees are either self-employed and writing it off, or paid by their employer.

BSides Las Vegas is a much smaller (~1000 people) conference, that’s heavily community-focused. With tracks intended for those new to the industry, getting hired, and a variety of technical talks, it has something for everyone. It also has my favorite CTF: Pros vs Joes. You can donate for admission, or get in line for one of ~450 free admissions. (Yes, the line starts early. Yes, it quickly sells out.)

DEF CON is the biggest of the conferences. (And, in my opinion, the “main event”.) I think of DEF CON as the Burning Man of hacker conferences: yes, there’s tons of talks, but it’s also a huge opportunity for members of the community to show off what they’re doing. It’s also a huge party at night: tons of music, drinking, pool parties. At DEF CON, there is more to do than can be done, so you’ll need to pick and choose.

Hopefully you already have your travel plans (hotel/airfare/etc.) sorted. It’s a bit late for me to provide advice there this year. :)

What To Do

Make sure you do things. You only get out of Hacker Summer Camp what you put into it. You can totally just go and sit in conference rooms and listen to talks, but you’re not going to get as much out of it as you otherwise could.

Black Hat has excellent classes, so you can get into significantly more depth than a 45 minute talk would allow. If you have the opportunity (they’re expensive), you should take one.

If you’re not attending Black Hat, come over to BSides Las Vegas. They go on in parallel, so it’s a good opportunity for a cheaper option and for a more community feel. At BSides, you can meet some great members of the community, hear some talks in a smaller intimate setting (you might actually have a chance to talk to the speaker afterwards), and generally have a more laid-back time than Black Hat.

DEF CON is entirely up to you: go to talks, or don’t. Go to villages and meet people, see what they’re doing, get hands on with things. Go to the vendor area and buy some lockpicks, WiFi pineapples, or more black t-shirts. Drink with some of the smartest people in the industry. You never know who you’ll meet. Whatever you choose, you can have a blast, but you need to make sure you manage your energy. I’ve made myself physically sick by trying to do it all – just accept that you can’t and take it easy.

I’m particularly excited to check out the IoT village again this year. (As regular readers know, I have a soft spot for the Insecurity of Things.) Likewise, I look forward to seeing small talks in the villages.

Whatever you do, be an active participant. I’ve personally spent too much time not participating: not talking, not engaging, not doing. You won’t get the most out of this week by being a wallflower.

Digital Security

DEF CON has a reputation for being the most dangerous network in the world, but I believe that title depends on how you look at it. In my experience, it’s a matter of quality vs quantity. While I have no doubt that the open WiFi at DEF CON probably has far more than it’s fair share of various hijinks (sniffing, ARP spoofing, HTTPS downgrades, fake APs, etc.), I genuinely don’t anticipate seeing high-value 0-days being deployed on this network. Using an 0-day on the DEF CON network is going to burn it: someone will see it and your 0-day is over. Some of the best malware reversers and forensics experts in the world are present, I don’t anticipate someone using a high-quality bug in modern software on this network and wasting it like that.

Obviously, I can’t make any guarantees, but the following advice approximately matches my own threat model. If you plan to connect to shady networks or CTF-type networks, you probably want to take additional precautions. (Like using a separate laptop, which is the approach I’m taking this year.)

That being said, you should take reasonable precautions against more run of the mill attacks:

Using a current, fully patched iOS or Android device should be relatively safe. ChromeOS is a good choice if you just need internet from a laptop-style device. Fully patched Windows/Linux/OS X are probably okay, but you have somewhat larger attack surface and less protection against drive-by malware.

Your single biggest concern on any network (DEF CON or not) should be sending plaintext over the network. Use a VPN. Use HTTPS. Be especially wary of phishing. Use 2-Factor. (Ideally U2F, which is cryptographically designed to be unphishable.)

Personal Security & Safety

This is Vegas. DEF CON aside, watch what you’re doing. There are plenty of pick pockets, con men, and general thieves in Las Vegas. They’re there to prey on tourists, and whether you’re there for a good time or for a con, you’re their prey. Keep your wits about you.

Check ATMs for skimmers. (This is a good life pro tip.) Don’t use the ATMs near the con. If you’re not sure if you can tell if an ATM has a skimmer: bring enough cash in advance. Lock it in your in-room safe.

Does your hotel use RFID-based door locks? May I suggest RFID-blocking sleeves?

Planning to drink? (I am.) Make sure you drink water too. Vegas is super-hot, and dehydration will make you very sick (or worse). I try to drink 1/2 a liter of water for every drink I have, but I rarely meet that goal. It’s still a good goal to have.

FAQ

Are you paranoid?

Maybe. I get paid to execute attacks and think like an attacker, so it comes with the territory. I’m going to an event to see other people who do the same thing. I’m not convinced the paranoia is unwarranted.

Will I get hacked?

Probably not, if you spend a little time preparing.

Should I go to talks?

Are they interesting to you? Go to talks if they’re interesting and timely. Note that most talks are recorded and will be posted online a couple of months after the conferences (or can be bought sooner from Source of Knowledge). A notable exception is that SkyTalks are not recorded. And don’t try to record them yourself – you’ll get bounced from the room.

What’s the 3-2-1 rule?

3 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower. Every day. I prefer 2 showers myself – Vegas is pretty hot.