DEFCON: Why Conference Harassment Matters

Syndicated

This weekend was DEFCON 20, the largest and most famous hacker[1] conference in the world. I didn't go to DEFCON because I'm a woman, and I don't like it when strangers grab my crotch. 

defcon

Defcon image by Lisa Brewster via Flickr.


Let's back up a little bit. DEFCON is a stellar computer security conference, attended by famous computer security experts, shadowy government "spooks," creative hackers of all sorts, and the journalists who write about them. I first attended DEFCON in 1995 as a gawky 17-year-old. DEFCON 3 was just a few hundred computer security experts wearing black leather jackets and milling around in a ballroomat the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. 

DEFCON 3 badge

That weekend I learned about Kevin Mitnick getting hunted down by the FBI, war-dialing for modems, and the existence of the Internet. I met a guy with long red hair named Dan Farmerwho had written a program called something like EVIL, or SATAN, I wasn't sure which. I was so inspired by the fascinating, brilliant, frequently leather-clad people I met at DEFCON 3 that I became a computer programmer. I still have my first DEFCON badge, a cheesy purple and white laminated number with only my first name - at age 17, I wasn't about to to give my full name to a conference full of hackers!

DEFCON today

Fast forward 17 years to DEFCON 20. Every time I read about something cool happening at DEFCON, I wanted to jump on the next flight to Las Vegas. But I didn't, because of my own bad experiences at DEFCON, and those of people like KC, a journalist and student in San Francisco who wrote about attending DEFCON 19:

Nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of bad behavior I experienced. Like the man who drunkenly tried to lick my shoulder tattoo. Like the man who grabbed my hips while I was waiting for a drink at the EFF party. Like the man who tried to get me to show him my tits so he could punch a hole in a card that, when filled, would net him a favor from one of the official security staff.

Or the experience of one of my friends, who prefers to remain anonymous. At a recent DEFCON, while leaning over to get her drink at the bar, someone slid his hand up all the way between her legs and grabbed her crotch. When she turned around, the perpetrator had already disappeared into the crowd. My own stories from DEFCON seem tame compared to what these women went through, but I couldn't take the constant barrage of sexual insults and walked out halfway through DEFCON 16, swearing not to return if I was going to be harassed like that again.

Unfortunately, DEFCON isn't unusual among hacker conferences. Similar stories about Black Hat, HOPE, CCC, and others are also common. Sexual harassment at other computer conferences often appears unintentional, but at hacker conferences it's often clear that the perp is doing it on purpose, and enjoying the hell out of it. As a woman, it's hard to justify attending a hacker conference when I can go to an academic computer conference and get treated like a human being most of the time.

Why harassment matters

At this point, some of you are thinking, "Well, if DEFCON is so bad for women, women just shouldn't go. Who cares?" As KC puts it, "Defcon is also many wonderful things. It is a fantastic environment to learn, network, and connect with friends old and new." There's a reason that I attended DEFCON five times before I quit. DEFCON and other hacker conferences are popular for all the reasons that conferences exist at all: learning new things, meeting people in your field, improving your reputation, finding jobs, and making new friends.

I'll start with the most obvious benefit of attending DEFCON: jobs. Did you know that Twitter is recruiting computer security experts at DEFCON?

So are Zynga and the NSA:

@netik: Twitter is hiring security people. If you are at defcon and need work, @ reply me and let's meet up.
Happy Recruiting! NSA top spy going to #Defcon 2012 ...
I am recruiting for AppSec, SecEng, and SecIR positions at @Zynga this week at BsidesLV, Defcon, and Blackhat. Let’s talk.

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