Hacker Summer Camp 2017: Lessons Learned

In addition to taking stock of how things went at Hacker Summer Camp, I think it’s important to examine the lessons learned from the event. Some of these lessons will be introspective and reflect on myself and my career, but I think it’s important to share these to encourage others to also reflect on what they want and where they’re going.


It’s still incredibly important to me to be doing hands-on technical work. I do a lot of other things, and they may have significant impact, but I can’t imagine taking a purely leadership/organizational role. I wouldn’t be happy, and unhappy people are not productive people. Finding vulnerabilities, doing technical research, building tools, are all areas that make me excited to be in this field and to continue to be in this field.

I saw so many highly-technical projects presented and demoed, and these were all the ones that made me excited to still be in this field. The IoT village, in particular, showed a rapidly-evolving highly technical area of security with many challenges left to be solved:

  • How do you configure devices that lack a user interface?
  • How do you update devices that users expect to run 24/7?
  • How do you build security into a device that users expect to be dirt cheap?
  • What are the tradeoffs between Bluetooth, WiFi, 802.15.4, and other radio techs?

Between these questions and my love of playing with hardware (my CS concentration was in embedded systems), it’s obvious why I’ve at least slightly gravitated towards IoT/embedded security.

This brings me to my next insight: I’m still very much a generalist. I’ve always felt that being a generalist has hamstrung me from working on cool things, but I’m beginning to think the only thing hamstringing me is me. Now I just need to get over the notion that 0x20 is too old of an age for cool security/vulnerability research. I’m focusing on IoT and I’ve managed to exclude certain areas of security in the interests of time management: for as fascinating as DFIR is, I’m not actively pursuing anything in that space because it turns out time is a finite quantity and spreading it too thin means getting nowhere with anything.


Outwardly, I’m happy that BSidesLV and DEF CON both appear to have had an increasingly diverse attendance, though I have no idea how accurate the numbers are given their methodology. (To be fair, I’m super happy someone is trying to even to figure this out in the chaos that is hacker summer camp.) The industry, and the conferences, may never hit a 50/50 gender split, but I think that’s okay if we can get to a point where we build an inclusive meritocracy of an environment. Ensuring that women, LGBTQ, and minorities who want to get into this industry can do so and feel included when they do is critical to our success. I’m a firm believer that the best security professionals draw from their life background when designing solutions, and having a diverse set of life backgrounds ensures a diverse set of solutions. Different experiences and different viewpoints avoids groupthink, so I’m very hopeful to see those numbers continue to rise each year.

I have zero data to back this up, but observationally, it seemed that more attendees brought their kids with them to hacker summer camp. I love this: inspiring the next generation of hackers, showing them that technology can be used to do cool things, and that it’s never too early to start learning about it will benefit both them (excel in the workforce, even if they take the hacker mindset to another industry) and society (more creative/critical thinkers, better understanding of future tech, and hopefully keeping them on the white hat side). I don’t know how much of this is a sign of the maturing industry (more hackers have kids now), more parents feel that it’s important to expose their kids to this community, or maybe just a result of the different layout of Caesar’s, leading to bad observations.


There were a few things from my packing list this year that turned out to be really useful. I’m going to try to do an updated planning post pair (e.g., one far out and one shortly before con) for next year, but there’s a few things I really thought were useful and so I’ll highlight them here.

  • An evaporative cooling towel really helps with the Vegas heat. It’s super lightweight and takes virtually no space. Dry, its useful as a normal towel, but if you wet it slightly, the evaporating water actually cools off the towel (and you). Awesome for 108 degree weather.
  • An aluminum water bottle would’ve been nice. Again, fight the dehydration. In the con space, there’s lots of water dispensers with at least filtered water (Vegas tap water is terrible) plus the SIGG bottles are nice because you can use a carabiner to strap it to your bag. I like the aluminum better than a polycarbonate (aka Nalgene) because it won’t crack no matter how you abuse it. (Ok, maybe it’s possible to crack aluminum, but this isn’t the Hydraulic Press Channel.)
  • RFID sleeves. I mentioned these before. Yes, my room key was based on some RFID/proximity technology. Yes, a proxmark can clone it. Yes, I wanted to avoid that happening without my knowing.

For some reason, I didn’t get a chance to break out a lot of the hacking gear I brought with me, but I’ll probably continue to bring it to cons “just in case”. I’m usually checking a bag anyway, so a few pounds of gear is a better option than regretting it if I want to do something.


That concludes my Hacker Summer Camp blog series for this year. I hope it’s been useful, entertaining, or both. Agree with something I said? Disagree? Hit me up on Twitter or find me via other means of communications. :)

Hacker Summer Camp 2017: DEF CON

DEF CON, of course, is the main event of Hacker Summer Camp for me. It’s the largest gathering of hackers in the world, and it’s the only opportunity I get to see some of the people I know in the industry. It’s also the most hands-on of all of the conferences I’ve ever attended, and the people running the villages clearly know their stuff and are super passionate about their area. Nowhere do I see so much raw talent and excitement for the hacker spirit as at DEF CON.

This year was the first year at Caesar’s Palace and quite frankly, it showed. Traffic control reminded me of the first year at Bally’s/Paris: as best as they could do without any data, but still far from optimal. Additionally, Dark Tangent pointed out that they were expecting 6% growth, but ended up closer to 20%. That’s thousands extra. The rule that they do not sell out and everyone gets through the door is not without its downsides.

Overall, this year was incredible for me personally. Though I attended no main track talks, I made it to a couple of Sky Talks and some village talks, as well as a bunch of village activities. I met a bunch of interesting people who are working on interesting technical things, which is great because it reminds me why I got into this industry in the first place and what I want to be doing in the future.

The IoT village was excellent, but I wish I had gotten to it earlier to participate in the IoT CTF – it looked like a lot of fun, and their physical target range wasn’t something you see everyday. They had everything from cheap bluetooth devices to the Google Home and Amazon Alexa, and I believe this is a reflection of where we’ll see the future growth in security – the IoT isn’t a passing fad, and we’ll have millions of low-cost devices deployed and not properly managed. There’s no time like the present to get security to the front and center of the IoT device design process.

In previous years, I’d always played in the Capture the Packet contest. This year I opted out, despite having a bye in the first round, because there was so much going on and because it had consumed too much of my time at DEF CON 24. I don’t regret this decision, but it is something I missed slightly. In fact, it ended up that I never even set foot in the packet capture village! (I guess that’s what happens to villages at the end of halls?)

The “linecon” joke was never more accurate than this year – there was a line for everything! Not only did every talk have lines, but there were lines to get into the Biohacking Village, the Swag line was long (where was Hacker Stickers with our official unofficial swag?), even the line for Mohawkcon was ridiculous! (Maybe next year I just need to get a mohawk before I go there – it’s not like I don’t donate to the EFF anyway.) I’m sure this is a combination of many factors, including the growth of the community, the new venue, and the fact that it wouldn’t be DEF CON without linecon.

The DEF CON artwork is not something I normally write about, largely because I’m no artist and I barely have an eye for, well, anything, but I really thought the art was excellent this year. I so desperately wanted to rip one of the posters off the wall next to the escalators! (I have hopes one of them might appear in a charity auction at some point, but I didn’t see it at con.)

Caesar’s as a venue was okay – there was noticably more space, but figuring out how to get between some of the areas was not crystal clear. A lot of that was on me – I should’ve done more recon of the con area. (Look for a “lessons learned” post coming soon.) My hotel room was awesome though, and in the tower right above the con space, so I had that going for me. Fingers crossed to get in the same tower next year.

Dual Core

Dual Core had an outstanding show on the Friday Night lineup. I don’t care what DEF CON calls the headliner, Dual Core is always the headliner for my music tastes. I’ve seen him perform live at least once at every DEF CON and at dozens of other events (Southeast Linux Fest, DerbyCon, etc.), and I just don’t think it would be a full con without seeing him.

Mad props to DT and all the DEF CON Goons and organizers who work so hard to put the event together. No matter how much chaos there may be, I’ve had a great time every year, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. That’s just a part of the World’s Biggest Hacker Convention.

Hacker Summer Camp 2017: XXV Badge

In my post the Many Badges of DEF CON 25 I may have not-so-subtly hinted that there was something I was working on. While none of the ones I listed were created in response to the announcement that DEF CON had been forced to switch to “Plan B” with their badges, mine more or less was. Ever since I saw the Queercon badge in 2015, I’d had the idea to create my own electronic badge, but the announcement spurred me on to action.

However, what could I do in only 2 months? Before I created this badge, I had never created a PCB. All my electronics design work before had been on protoboards at best, and while I had assembled SMD electronics on PCBs before, I had no idea how to design with it. So, it seemed like a perfect learning opportunity.

Boy, did I ever learn. In the process of creating this badge, I created 3 separate sets of PCBs, soldered 7 finished badges, (yes, only 7 – maybe this was the most exclusive unofficial badge?), debugged numerous problems, and read way more datasheets than I expected I would.

So what did I come up with? Well, how does 48 RGB LEDs drawing up to 15W of power sound? Overkill? It totally was.

Badge RGB

Ok, maybe there’s a little too much glare there. Sorry. It turns out that pointing a cell phone at 48 LEDs rarely results in a quality photo. Let’s try it again without the blinding light.

Finished Badge

Way better, don’t you think? This is the “XXV Badge” – 48 APA102C LEDs controlled by a Atmel SAMD21 ARM Cortex M0 MCU clocked at 48 MHz. The SAMD21 runs at 3.3v, the LEDs at 5V, so I have a boost converter driving the LEDs based on a TPS61232. A 74AHCT125 quad buffer provides level conversion (though not really designed to, it works quite well) for the SPI signals. All told, there’s 98 components, though many of them are simply things like decoupling capacitors.

I know the design is simple, but I’m no artist. On the other hand, I feel like it worked out quite well for the parties and I got a number of compliments and interest in the badge, so I’m pretty happy with the outcome for my first badge design (and first PCB!) I can’t wait to start thinking about next year!

The boost converter design & layout are approximately based on the reference design from TI, but I had to make a few adaptations due to part size and layout constraints. Fortunately, it ended up working out pretty well, and with fresh batteries, the output is well-regulated. However, running all of the LEDs at full brightness draws more current than 3xAAAs can support, causing the input voltage to the boost converter to drop and resulting either in an immense amount of ripple, or so much dropout that the SAMD21 CPU resets.

Kicad design files and firmware source code are on GitHub! My production boards were produced by Hackvana.

Hacker Summer Camp 2017: Pros vs Joes CTF

I’ve returned from this year’s edition of Hacker Summer Camp, and while I’m completely and utterly exhausted, I wanted to get my thoughts about this year’s events out before I completely forget what happened.

The Pros vs Joes CTF was, yet again, a high quality event despite the usual bumps and twists. This was the largest PvJ ever, with more than 80 people involved between Blue Pros, Blue Joes, Red Cell, Grey Cell, and Gold Cell. Each blue team had 11 players between the two Pros and 9 Joes, making them slightly larger than in years past. (Though I believe that’s a temporary “feature” of this year’s game.)

I was also incredibly happy by the diversity displayed by the event this year: at least 3 of the blue teams had women on them, as did both Gold and Grey cells. Teams had experienced players, with some being veterans, as well as players with no professional experience (students) and professionals working outside the information security industry (my team alone had two electrical engineers). This mix is part of what makes Pros vs Joes so good – everybody has something to contribute, and you get such a wide range of views and experiences. Two players on my team absolutely crushed the Windows aspects of the game, which was incredible because everyone knows I’m a hardcore Linux guy. (The last version of Windows I used as a “daily driver” was Windows XP SP 2. In 2003.)

Game mechanics were incredibly different this year than in years past. No longer did a team turn in “integrity flags” for local points. More hosts had multiple scored services. Tickets incurred a penality if they were reopened. Most signiciantly, there was a store where teams could buy a variety of things, including the services of a Red Team member, a Security Onion box (I gotta give Security Onion a try!), or “outsourcing” a grey team ticket. My team chose to make little use of this store, but other teams made extensive use of Dichotomy’s Emporium. (I’m not convinced that either is an “optimal” strategy, because a lot depends on the strengths and weaknesses of their own team.) I can’t wait to see the analysis from our data scientist on the different aspects of the game.

The game environment, on the other hand, was essentially unchanged from last year. The same vulnerabilities and hosts were present. This lead to quite a bit of surprise when, during scorched earth, I was able to use the same BIND 9 bug to take out DNS (and consequently, the ability of Scorebot to reach any services) for all 3 other teams (which was a repeat of my same scorched earth tactic from last year). A note to future captains: DNS is important, perhaps you’d like to patch that machine.

Scorched Earth

I’ll leave any major announcements about the game to Dichotomy, but I do want to mention that I envision more collaboration between the Pros & Staff over the next year. Pros vs Joes is a learning CTF first, and this will allow us to build a more immersive environment and a better set of resources for the blue staff to use in mentoring Joes.

I was exhausted by the end of this PvJ, but it was a kind of good exhaustion. No matter how tired I was, I was satisfied to know that all of my players seemed to have learned something throughout the course of the game, and the cherry on top was a victory for ShellAntics. Thanks to Dichotomy, Gold Cell, Red Cell (no hard feelings t1v0?), and of course, the awesome Joes on my team.

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:

  • Use Full Disk Encryption (in case your device gets lost/stolen)
  • Be fully updated on a modern OS (putting off patches? might be the time to fix that)
  • Don’t use open WiFi
  • Turn off any radios you’re not using (WiFi, BT)
  • Disable 3G downgrade on your phone if you can (LTE only)
  • Don’t accept updates offered while you’re in Vegas
  • Don’t run random downloads :)
  • Run a local firewall dropping all unexpected traffic

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.


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.