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Hackers conference invites kids

"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.

“I feel like a community here—it’s like I’m not the only kid,” Xavier said.

The emergence of the DefCon kids’ conference comes as hackers are making headlines around the world. Though the general public often associates hacking with criminality, the engineering culture of the technology mainstream has always embraced people who explore the boundaries of what can be done with computers and other gadgets. Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, the co-founders of Apple Inc., have said they considered themselves “hackers” when they created the first Apple computers in the mid-1970s.

Recent hacker attacks, however, play into stereotypical definitions of hackers. On Saturday, for instance, the hacker group Anonymous broke into 70 U.S. law enforcement websites, illustrating the growing threat from criminal hackers.

DefCon and its more-polished relative, the Black Hat technical security convention, drew thousands of people here in Las Vegas. They came for the revelry and intense discussion of new vulnerabilities in devices ranging from mobile phones to insulin pumps and critical infrastructure.

Black Hat, which is an industry sponsored event and costs up to $2,500 to enter, had more than 6,000 attendees. Vendors and executives in suits were there to schmooze and strike deals until Black Hat ended on Thursday.

DefCon, which ended August 7th, costs $150 to enter. Organizers stopped counting the number of attendees after they sold 10,000 badges on the first day. Most attendees wore t-shirts and shorts. One popular annual pastime at DefCon involves trying to identify undercover federal agents. DefCon ended Sunday.

This year many attendees rallied around a hacker named “Barkode” who has a blood disease and needs an urgent bone marrow transplant. Volunteers running a blood drive on site offered free mohawks to all donors. Conference organizers said the drive was so successful that extra supplies were needed to handle the donations.

Wolfe and Behr Crouse of Conroe, Texas proudly sported mohawks. Wolfe, 11 and Behr, 8 outlined the family hacking hierarchy.

“He’s the hacker, I’m the lockpicker. I get him in the building,” Behr said.

So how long has he been a lockpicker? Less than a day, his mother laughed. He got the bug after picking locks with some success at DefCon.

The boys’ parents, Rick and Kirsten, are both techies. They came to DefCon to introduce their boys to the culture. Rick has attended for the past three years. He said he wanted Wolfe and Behr to see the constructive applications of hacking.

“The technology itself isn’t good or evil—it’s what you do with it,” Rick Crouse said.

Kirsten Crouse added that they wanted to show examples of math and science in action to convey the importance of doing well in school.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for the kids to see what the options are out there,” she said.

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