DefCon found new life in 2011; a new venue, a non-electronic badge, expanded audience base, and hacker kids.
As a three-year veteran of the conference, I was struck by the number of kids strolling the convention floor – some of them with mohawks. DefCon Kids was designed to introduce 8 to 16 year olds to the skills and knowledge associated with hacker know-how.
Along with their parents, fledgling hackers were immersed in workshops covering topics such as Google Hacking, basic soldering skills, TCP/IP packet capture and analysis, and introductory cryptography. These skills were communicated in the context of productive uses by security luminaries such as Johnny Long, Chris Hadnagy, and Deviant Olam. Additionally, federal agencies such as the NSA and DHS provided literature, artifacts such as a working Enigma machine, and speakers.
As a student of psychology and social interactions, I was fascinated by the introduction of children into a microcosm of hackers. The guarded postures of parents new to DefCon were evident on the first day of the conference. Children were held close as fathers and mothers scanned the colorful streams of attendees, unsure if this was a good idea.
The kids were a different story. Their eyes were bright with discovery as they walked past the hardware hacking and lock-picking villages. Straining to dissolve the bounds of fear, the children exercised their social engineering skills to persuade their parents to play along. The power of discovery as they soldered their first transistor to a circuit board soon transformed their parent’s caution into pride and joy. Soon the parents were engaged, sharing their insights as their children led the way. While DefCon Kids provided a supervised environment to ensure their safety, it was also designed to encourage children to take their parents on a journey of discovery.
DefCon was a game for these kids; a sentiment that DefCon Kids was designed specifically to create. This feeling was infectious. As the weekend matured, I witnessed hardcore hackers getting into the spirit. Rather than intimidate, they chose to be momentary mentors to these young discoverers. For a moment, the egos that are a part of the adult DefCon experience were put aside in order to focus on the joys that brought these professionals into the field. These bonding moments where discovery was shared between the veterans and nascent explorers were my favorites.
The introduction of DefCon Kids highlights the growing importance of cybersecurity education among students, professionals and indeed, even among children. According to a recent article on the U.S. Cyber Challenge Camps, cybersecurity jobs will be one of the fastest-growing fields in the next decade. DefCon Kids follows the trend towards developing cybersecurity skills in youth, so that these young professionals will one day be prepared to tackle the increasingly advanced cyber attacks that constantly threaten today’s enterprises.
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