Story by DL Haydon
My first real introduction to Houston’s hacker community occurred about 1,400 miles out of town.
It was during DEFCON, the annual hacker convention in Las Vegas. For four days about 25,000 people from all over the world jammed themselves into Caesar’s Palace. They networked, attended talks, took part in demos and unsurprisingly, engaged in late-night cyberpunk mischief.
Without trying, I kept bumping into Texans. Most were from Austin. Quite a few were from H-town. Some were total strangers but more than a few were friends or friends-of-friends.
Meeting them at a convention centered around hacking was one thing. But where could they be found back home in Houston?
“We don’t really have too much of a community here,” Dennis Maldonado, a Houston-based security consultant recently told me.
In addition to his cybersecurity work, Dennis has given a handful of talks at DEFCON, and has a keen interest in growing Houston's hacker community.
Most people hear the word “hacker” and still picture a hooded figure wearing a Guy Fawkes mask stealing data while hunched over a laptop. The kind of community Dennis describes consists of the more broad sense of the term. Penetration testers who get hired to check a company’s vulnerability. Information security (infosec) consultants. Computer programming college students. IT analysts. Lockpicking enthusiasts. Ham radio operators. Hobbyists.
“You’re a hacker if you have the mindset,” DEFCON Goon and Houstonian DJ dead explained. “It’s making something do what it wasn’t designed to do.”
Dennis, dead and others like them are active participants in what is a small but dedicated group of hacking enthusiasts. Despite the city's unique challenges, they're working to grow the scene.
Typically in Houston's industries, companies will designate pre-existing employees who already do computer work (IT or otherwise) and toss them cybersecurity hats, Dennis said. Those types of employees have little involvement in cybersecurity and hacking outside of work. Why? Lack of interest. Family responsibility. Traffic.
“I think Houston is so big, nobody wants to drive,” dead said during a recent LockSport meetup. He cited dozens of DEFCON Goons (convention volunteers) who are scattered from one end of Houston to the other.
Houston LockSport, which the two help organize, is one of the easier meetups to find (and participate in). It takes place once a month at Griff’s Sports Bar in Montrose. While most of the patrons are busy watching the Rockets or Astros, look in the far corner. You’ll spot a dozen or so people sitting at tables littered with picks, tension wrenches and about every lock imaginable.
(Dennis noted that lockpicking has one of the more infamous reputations as an illegal activity. He stressed that as long as you’re picking your own lock, or a lock you’ve been given permission to pick, everything is kosher - in Texas anyway.)
In addition to the lockpicking meet, dead helps run the local DEFCON group, DC713. Although they’re not against having a newb show up to their monthly meet at Brother’s Pizzeria just on the other side of the 610 loop (and newbs do tend to show up) the topics and projects discussed there are advanced. A lay person could easily get lost in an ocean of ones and zeroes.
Then there's everyone else:
-Houston InfoSec, a group of information security professionals who meet monthly for a social drink at the West End Pub in the Galleria area. They’re not hackers per-se, but topics tend to overlap.
-TX/RX Labs in East End used to describe itself as a hackerspace. Not too long ago they changed it to the more neutral “makerspace” which, considering they teach everything from wood cutting to computer programming, was probably a good call.
-Houston 2600 (a reference to old-school phone phreaking) used to be a lot more active (and technical) but allegedly can still be found once a month at Ninfa's Express in the Galleria area.
Another hacker group exists within city limits, but politely requested anonymity. For every one person who shows up with the right idea, they told me, about 10 wander in hoping (in vain) they can hire someone to break into a spouse’s email.
Essentially, hacker groups are indeed peppered through Houston. But consolidating people scattered across the fourth largest city in the US is just one issue keeping them from growing. Fact is, Space City isn’t Silicon Valley.
“We also don’t have much of a tech industry,” Dennis said. “Most of it is oil and gas or medical related.”
In other words, there aren't as many people in Houston interested in hacking to begin with.
Job-wise, the city gets its hackers the old fashioned way: training. A quick Google search reveals several local companies who offer ethical hacking classes, workshops and bootcamps. Houston Community College and the University of Houston (and its downtown counterpart) offer cybersecurity courses. Then there's Hou.Sec.Con, the annual infosec conference.
dead noted that although Houston has medical and energy sectors which themselves foster technology growth, cybersecurity hasn’t been a hardcore focus in Houston’s industries. That means most people, even if they do cybersecurity work at a hospital or refinery, probably want to do something completely different when they clock out.
“They don’t look at computers when they get home,” dead explained.
Dennis noted that cities like Austin or Denver tend to have more people involved because on average, they’re younger (more free time) and likely work out of passion rather than for a paycheck.
The cherry on top is what Houston has that most cities don't: a robust hurricane season.
“Harvey killed us,” dead told me. “But it’s started to pick back up.”
Challenges aside, Dennis has also seen progress. Attendance at meetups has increased compared to the previous years, he told me.
Anyone interested in being part of that growth can check the links below for more information.
DL Haydon has been writing, reporting and shooting photos in Houston since Hurricane Ike. When not conducting journalism, he can be found (in various bars) people-watching, shooting pool or absentmindedly scribbling on cocktail napkins. DL focuses on politics and underground culture.