"I feel like a community here—it's like I'm not the only kid," said one attendee.
Fewer things seem out of place at the rough-hewn DefCon hacker convention than a swarm of kids.
For 18 years, hackers—and the computer security experts who track them—have gathered at DefCon, one of the largest and longest-running conferences of its kind, to share information about breaching and securing computers and other devices.
2011’s DefCon featured what some hardcore attendees might consider to be a startling sight: children. For the first time, DefCon included discussions and tutorials for budding hackers, ages 8 to 16. Some 60 kids showed up.
Over two days, they met prominent hackers, Homeland Security officials, and NSA security experts. They also listened to talks on the history of hacking and lectures on cryptography. Some of the convention’s hotly contested competitions were geared toward children as well. One contest covered lock-picking techniques to be used in the event they forget their locker combination. The kids were encouraged to find security vulnerabilities in popular technologies, from video games to computer hardware.
Children were required to have a parent with them. Many parents who brought their kids are longtime DefCon attendees who said they were excited about the bonding opportunity.
Rey Ayers, 42, an information security specialist for a utility company in the San Francisco Bay area, has attended DefCon for the past four years. He brought his son, Xavier, 14, who has been tinkering with computers for years and already has two information technology certifications.
Ayers said it was important to introduce his son to the hacker community, adding that they’ve talked extensively about the difference between ethical and unethical hacking.
“I see it in him—he feels like he belongs to a clan, to a group. I’m really proud,” Rey Ayers said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I can see he has the excitement in his eyes.”
Xavier, his backpack decked out in new pins with hacker logos, said he’s trying to follow in his dad’s footsteps. The conference has given them new ideas to explore. The two look forward to finding vulnerabilities in wireless networks together when they get home to Vallejo, California. Xavier, who hacks mostly with his dad, said he hoped to meet some kids his age at the conference who might become his hacking pen pals.