Skytalks has been DEF CON’s off-the-record hacker forum in Las Vegas for the last 11 years, and its ability to keep speakers from ending up published has persisted despite the challenges of popularity and demand.
“DEF CON for me was always about the computer underground, the information underground,” Skytalks organizer Blu Knight (BK) told me. “That’s what we’re trying to re-create here. I think we’ve done at least somewhat of a good job.”
The sub-con is one of the last chunks of DEF CON still holding on to its off-the-record roots. For the last 11 years, the speakers have been free from fear of getting recorded or photographed. Anyone caught recording is ejected. Shamefully.
BK agreed to interview with me after a Twitter exchange regarding whether the press should or shouldn’t bother attending something which was, by definition, not meant to be published.
“Grab a chunk of floor?” he said after we tried and failed to locate unoccupied chairs in the conference area of the Flamingo hotel. We sat on the technicolor carpet zigzagged by (you guessed it) flamingo pink. Neon blue walls stood on all sides.
It was a stone’s throw from the Skytalks room, one of several DEF CON’s Flamingo satellites in stationary orbit from the main conference in Caesar’s hotel.
Our interview marked the first time BK spoke with press about Skytalks, but not the first time a journalist showed up.
“We’ve had a couple of people from press in there,” he said. “The policy has gone back and forth.”
They’ve done a “no press” policy in previous years, but for DEF CON 26, any reporter interested in attending was encouraged to sit up front, where they could easily see the speaker, and vice-versa.
“We’re probably going to be keeping an eye on you,” he explained. It was a neutral tone, similar to how someone would say it might rain later in the day.
The rules baked into Skytalks serve in part to preserve the rough-and-ready old-school DEF CON feel, but also help protect sensitive content given by speakers, as well as the speakers themselves.
Skytalks’ team once pulled a member of the press when a speaker was simply made to feel uncomfortable. It’s an issue not limited to reporters. There’s been cases of infosec (information security) specialists ejected for trying to record audio.
BK, who has attended DEF CON since its 8th year, defined old-school DEF CON as smaller crowds, more cutting edge topics, legally questionable hacking and, of course, heckling.
“We encourage it,” BK said. “We outright encourage it. I always like to say ‘This is Skytalks. Wear a helmet.’”
More sensitive types might deem the behavior as offensive, problematic or toxic. BK assured roasts are done in moderation, and everyone who dishes it out, takes it.
“I like to describe us as equal opportunity offenders,” BK said. “While we are somewhat loud and offensive we also do understand and directly support DEF CON’s code of conduct policy.”
The idea of a sub-con that preserves what used to be norm is inline with DEF CON 26’s theme: 1983, the view from dystopia’s edge.
The year before mass surveillance, misinformation and loss of control becomes ubiquitous and unstoppable. The time for action, where decisions made by hackers, teachers, artists, and yes, journalists, determines what kind of world we’re going to end up with.
Skytalks’ artwork this year represents the idea well: A four-year-old girl holding up a tin can with a string trailing off. A speech bubble from the can says a single word.
“The term I use for it is hacker hope,” BK said. “We do have a lot of hope here.”
Skytalks has kept to its roots, but nothing stays static. They were first held at the Skybox in the (now demolished) Riviera, with about 60-80 seats. This year there were about 350 seats, with a line of people snaking a few hundred feet.
During the interview I could still hear the red-shirted Goons (DEF CON security) attempting to herd the human millipede.
“GO RIGHT AT THE WALL. SKYTALKS TO THE RIGHT OF THE ESCALATOR. IF YOU ARE EXITING, MOVE THIS WAY,” they shouted.
DEF CON gives Skytalks the room space, the screens and miscellaneous bits. But BK and his crew pay for the rest out of pocket and through donations. Gear, badges and party supplies. If you like what Skytalks does, they ask for donations. If you don’t like Skytalks, they ask for donations less politely.
The benefit of not being directly tethered to the main line is that Skytalks remains its own machine, complete with its own support staff of informants, assistants, grunts and enforcers.
One of them tapped BK during the interview to help with technical difficulties. The Skytalks minion remained as BK went to put out a (figurative) fire.
“Do you want to do the thing?” The minion asked me as he pointed at my press badge.
[Side note: The DEF CON badges have a game built into them requiring badges to physically link. In a sentence, it forces the various attendees to interact with one-another.]
The badges for each group, humans, press, Goons, etc. stand out by color and design, making it easy to spot who is who. As we waited, I mentioned how the badges transformed the press from being treated like tourists or spies. We became participants.
He noted why the tourist/spy situation existed in the first place: instances in the past where press showed up at DEF CON with the wrong idea.
“Just don’t secretly record anything,” the minion said. “There are tiny little conferences where underground s**** get’s discussed, and there’s Skytalks, but other than that it’s not at DEFCON.”
BK returned. The AC in the room had overloaded.
“This is old-school DEF CON right here,” he said.
We picked back up on the allure. Skytalks has definitely experienced increased hype year on year, BK confirmed with the seating changes alone. Then there’s the throwback which gives quite a few people nostalgia. But the main attraction likely stems from the fact that it looks like forbidden fruit.
It’s DEF CON’s Pandora’s box, and you can’t expect 25,000 hackers to not want to know what’s inside. The result is a recursive loop: Skytalks digging further underground, attendees growing ever more curious.
Demand has virtually outpaced supply, causing some to give up the chance to go altogether. It’s a symptom of a larger logistics issue at DEF CON.
Higher-altitude Skytalks might need to be built, but whether to form a second track has yet to be decided, BK explained.
“There is a high demand,” he added. “But overall there has been nothing but support for what we do.”
And what they do is, at the core, is still the same as what DEF CON does:
“Good,” BK said. “Doing good things. Making cool things. And showing them off.”
(Story to be updated following attendance at Skytalks Saturday night pool party)