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Big Hack Attack

Hacker fest reconvenes -- somehow without labeling it "2.0"

As the first National Performing Arts Convention hustles and bustles Downtown this weekend, a meet-up of a different sort will take hold of Oakland. But don't expect to see hordes of public-relations pros swamping the college area with exclusive passes or goodie bags full of local restaurant coupons.


Just as it did when first held in Pittsburgh last year, SummerCon, the annual conference of self-proclaimed hackers, promises to pass with little trumpeting from the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau. In fact, you may not notice the 200-odd folks at The University Club for SummerCon unless you're an Oakland-based bartender -- or, perhaps, a wireless-network user.


"[The University Club] really stood on their heads for us last year," says SummerCon coordinator Mark Trumpbour. "We've had a lot of bad experiences with hotels -- you bring a bunch of hackers together, there will be some high jinks, but [The University Club] was really understanding. OK, maybe your entire wireless network went down, but you know, we'll take care of it -- it's not like it was 'mission critical.'"


If this sounds a little "snort, snort -- push up horn-rimmed glasses," it is -- but not as much as you may think. Because while the hackers attending SummerCon may very well be the same ones changing the CIA's Web page to, say, a sophisticated porn site, they're also the people keeping you and me safe from those with a far darker agenda -- at least in cyber-space.


"Hacking isn't a nefarious activity, it's a problem-solving technique," explains Trumpbour. "It's approaching a problem and finding a solution without a lot of information on the front end. Hacking can be applied to anything -- the people who built hotrods in the '50s, they could've been hackers. There are a lot of [hackers] who end up in the security industry -- those people don't start from a 'help wanted' ad."


Much of SummerCon explores hacking as a hobby, with "game-show type stuff" like the My Greatest Hack contest, also known as "the statute of limitations game; you can see everyone calculating whether it's run out before they tell their story," Trumpbour says. It also offers a chance for these long-distance acquaintances to sink some pints together. The event takes a philosophical look at the importance of the hacker lifestyle as well.


"A lot of people interested in computer-security issues are nervous about electronic voting" in the upcoming presidential election," says Trumpbour. "There've been some serious vulnerabilities discovered about [voting machine company] Diebold's system. It opens up a can of worms about the social responsibilities of the hacker community: Do these people with, generally, a very libertarian, individualistic [view], have a political responsibility to make everyone painfully aware of the flaws of these systems?"


Like last year, there will be federal agents -- invited -- at SummerCon, thanks to Pittsburgh's little-known primacy in the cyber-crime department. Trumpbour points out that the 'Burgh's not such an odd place to host the event (even after past Con hosts Amsterdam and Washington, D.C.), thanks to the location of Carnegie Mellon University, the CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) Internet security center, and the National Cyber Forensics and Training Alliance here. (Hence SummerCon's T-shirts, "Hackers and Feds Together ...") So even the beer-drinking aspects of the hack-fest could, potentially, have far-reaching security implications. Come to think of it, especially the beer drinking.