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Defcon Keeps Hackers Hooked
By Declan McCullagh

2:00 a.m. July 16, 2001 PDT

LAS VEGAS -- Bram Cohen's latest project is nothing if not ambitious: a novel way to share files that he hopes will best rivals like Napster, Freenet, and Gnutella.

Cohen, a 25-year-old programmer with elbow-length, blond-streaked hair, showed up at the Defcon hacker convention this weekend to evangelize his "Bit Torrent" system.

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"It turns out the hard part in peer-to-peer is paying for the resources used and to get people to offer uploads," Cohen says.

Cohen solves that by borrowing a concept from the bulletin board systems of the 1980s: upload-download ratios. Bit Torrent software keeps track of how much you contribute compared to how much you take, and enforces this social contract through protocols, not laws.

Cohen is just one of thousands of hackers, would-be hackers, consultants and federal agents who gather at Defcon each year for a rollicking good time and the chance to share alcohol, ideas, and -- for the luckier ones -- casual sex in one of the suites of the Alexis Park Hotel.

Conference organizers call it the "annual computer underground party for hackers," and Defcon is known as much for its technical content as its beer-tinged hijinks. Pranks like smoke bombs in hotel pools, portions of telephone trucks mysteriously appearing in the convention hall, and concrete dumped in toilets have earned Defcon a reputation as a kind of annual hacker bacchanalia.

This weekend wasn't that different: Defcon security officers, called "goons," ejected a handful of hackers for distributing an anonymous brochure that urged attendees "don't pay for DC registration ... steal a badge ... reclaim your culture ... hack the exploiters ... ignore the rules ... don't buy anything...."

An ambulance hauled off one conference-goer who allegedly overdosed on a cocktail of drugs, and witnesses said one hapless attendee had his laptop smashed after displaying an unflattering PhotoShop-edited photo of another hacker who happened to be nearby.

When a Defcon goon got into a tiff with a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow group in the hotel lobby, the goon demanded that Wired News not photograph the altercation. In another incident, goons physically removed a man from the swimming pool area, claiming he did not have a conference badge. He merely happened to be staying at the Alexis Park Hotel and knew nothing about Defcon.

Such awkward run-ins are inevitable when an underground event swells to thousands of people -- over 4,200 people showed up last year, and this year was even better-attended -- and for the most part, the conference received favorable reviews from both first-time visitors and Defcon veterans.

"It was good to see both sides of the presentation -- the system administrators trying to secure their machines and the hackers trying to break into them," says Tom Walters, a 36-year-old network operations manager at Bechtel Hanford, a government contractor.

"I've learned a lot from the free-form nature of the presentations and from the Capture the Flag presentations.... This has been good. This has been fun," Walters says. Capture the Flag is an annual event where teams seek to secure servers from intrusion while breaking into other teams' machines.

But some old-timers decry what they call the growing bureaucratization of Defcon, marked by everything from noose-tight security and paid security guards to daily press conferences for the dozens of journalists in attendance and a two-page sheet of rules reporters are required to sign.

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