Advice for Women Thinking of Going to DEF CON (Yes, Really)

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I decided to go to DEF CON last year on a lark. I went to a WISP lockpicking event last June with a friend and coworker, who informed me that she was considering going, and oh, hey, did I want to come with? I’d heard of it before, but not in detail and not quite in the right context to make it sound like something I’d want to attempt. This time landed differently, though. (I blame having recently learned to use a handcuff shim.) I spent the evening after the event looking up flights to Vegas, hotels, and other research that suggested this was not a financially responsible move and not really very good timing either. Still, it stuck in my head, and I had to pull myself away from Kayak and its ilk and make myself go to bed later than was ideal.*

The next day, I mentioned it to a different coworker, who has a good balance of fun and financial responsibility. Since we were less than a month out from the event and I had neither transportation nor a place to stay, I expected her to talk me down and suggest that I try next year.

Instead, she told me she was going, and did I want to share a room? And that was phase one done – resolve achieved, bed secured, posse acquired, and only the small matter of airfare and time off to deal with. Fine fine.

Phase two was one I’ll call, “Oh, you’re doing to DEF CON? That’s… interesting.” This phase happened after reservations were in place, when I told friends and colleagues in tech what I was planning. The reactions tended to be similar: a mix of understanding why I’d consider doing such a thing and affectionate concern based on knowledge or experience of some shitty person or people in their past. These reactions came in a few flavors:

  • I went a few times but then had to stop [insert ominous look here]
  • I wouldn’t go there if you paid me, not any amount
  • I hope you enjoy yourself, but be careful (and you’re not going alone, right?)
  • You are not allowed to take any work assets with you on this trip

(This last one came from one of our bosses. We complied.)

Research nerd that I am, I looked up “How to DEF CON” but largely found articles aimed at, well, stinky boys. (#NotAllStinkyBoys, I know, but you should talk to other, more prominent bloggers about that if you want to shift those optics.) I did come away with some good, more general advice, most of which echoed what had been said to me already. Things like:

  • Turn off the wifi on your phone
  • Probably just keep your phone on airplane mode when you’re in the thick of things
  • Maybe keep it in a faraday bag, while you’re at it, come to that, and still wipe and restore it when you get home, because you never know
  • Just leave it at home, assuming home is in another state
  • Trust no ATM in proximity to the conference (though casino floor ones might be ok, heavily monitored as they are – but if you can get by without, do that)
  • Don’t bring your laptop; bring a burner if really must
  • Probably bring a burner phone too, really
  • Bring enough cash to exist on, if you can, and maybe don’t muck around with credit or debit cards (though opt for credit if you must, because they have fraud protection)
  • It’s more about people than the sessions
  • Go to parties and side events and games and whatever else crosses your radar. Here’s a good place to start getting a sense of what’s possible for the 2017 one.

All good and well, sure. What I didn’t find was advice to match the portents from friends based specifically on my situation as a woman heading to DEF CON. So, in the way of the semi-reformed content marketer that I am, I decided to put together my own resource. So, here you go: how I, a woman, an engineer, and a hard introvert with a low tolerance for dickheads, recommend approaching DEF CON.

Packing for DEF CON

The Las Vegas setting of DEF CON means that you’ll be walking between ovens and refrigerators most of the time. This is a great recipe for feeling a little uncomfortable and a little gross during most of your waking hours, but you can plan around this.

For general packing, here’s what I recommend.

  • Bring twice as many pairs of underwear as the number of days that you’re staying. Even when it isn’t warm in those big event spaces, it’s still close; you will appreciate the option to swap out layers without taking anxious inventory as you near the end of your trip.
  • Wear clothes that breathe. Beyond that, of course, wear what you want. Some women find it useful to go stealth in a hoodie and jeans; I found it oddly fun to be as dressy there as I sometimes am in normal life – but I also appreciated having options depending on the feeling of the day. Decide what will be more likely to make you feel comfortable in the context of a very busy, very distinctive conference, and you’ll be fine.
  • Excedrin. I’m headache-prone, so that’s a given for me.
  • Sleeping pills, if you roll that way. I like an OTC sleeping pill when I’m not sleeping at home. This last year, I, a person who lives alone for sanity-keeping purposes, shared a hotel room with three other people. It was worth cutting off any booze around ten so I could safely tranq myself to sleep and be both smart and sociable the next day.
  • And for your day-to-day pack, I suggest a not-small water bottle (at least 750ml), more snacks than you think you’ll really need, a hand fan, and a notebook and pens. You will learn about all sorts of weird shit, plus Twitter handles to follow, sites to look up, rad repos, and talks of yore. Have an analog way to record them for later.

Planning And Attending

Secure your tech.

See the earlier suggestion about burner laptops and/or phones and/or faraday containment devices. I learned while I was there that Bally’s told their entire staff to keep their phones off while working that weekend. I originally went on airplane mode for the first couple of days until coordinating with my friends got very annoying; then I used cell data only. Things went fine, but I plan to get a burner in place for this year. Figure that you’re going to be going fairly analog in the middle of a tech-centered conference, plan accordingly, and you’ll be fine.

An exception is if you want to participate in a CTF event or a tutorial – you’ll want a proper laptop for that kind of thing. Consider a Chromebook with Kali with no stored login information, with a plan to wipe it when you get home. And if you’re not sure of what a CTF is or are feeling a little daunted, this writeup of a rad engineer’s first one is pretty exciting.

If you do decide to bring a laptop, you can take your chances with official conference internet. Bear in mind that you need to set it up beforehand; go here for more details.

Walk fast, or make plans based on geography rather than strictly interest.

I don’t know how the rest of you manage to get to the talks you want, if they’re far away from each other. I sped across the Bally’s gaming floor over and over, from front to back, from side to side, from Vegas to Paris and back, going from a far-off upstairs meeting room to an upper-floor set of executive suites to a trio of enormous function rooms off of hallways made to look like a more restrained Versailles. I was a little more session-motivated than most people seemed to be (including the friends I traveled with), but the time between sessions made that difficult. If I didn’t walk fast and didn’t enjoy walking fast, I would’ve seen far fewer things.

Figure out where the water fountains are.

And keep that big-ass water bottle full. Plan on refilling it every couple of sessions. I’m not sure what it is about being around so many other people in close proximity that brings biological needs so much to the forefront, but it does. Routine dips in hydration or blood sugar become so much more pressing, even while surrounded by water fountains and stores only too eager to sell you supplies. Plan ahead, and your brain will work better for you.

If a party sounds cool, just sign up.

Lots of companies and villages and groups have parties, minicons, and other events. If you happen upon one that sounds good, and they request an RSVP, just do it (unless it’s a tutorial with a small capacity – then be cool, please). Everyone is dashing between five things most of the time while they’re there; might as well ensure your name is on the list.

Research sessions ahead of time; do multiple-choice selections in the moment.

(If you care a lot about sessions, of course.) To ensure you see more of what you want to see (because you will not see it all), I’d suggest culling possibilities ahead of time. I liked the app for this, as it shows you everything across the villages and the main con itself, and it lets you add competing sessions to your schedule for easy picking. There’s also the physical book you get when you check in – and the conference website, of course. Note everything that sounds interesting. Particularly if you’re new, you’ll probably learn something regardless of what you select.

However, let the final selection come in the moment, when you’re on one side of the conference space and you have to choose between staying put and sprinting across a casino floor; when it’s 20 floors up, and the lone functioning elevator is not behaving; when the line for a session is full 30 minutes before the doors open. Give yourself a few options for each timeslot and then let the conditions of the moment dictate what you actually try to do.

My favorite sessions fell into a few categories:

  • Social engineering
  • How to break shit (the Bluetooth lock session was a highlight)
  • Fun with Python
  • Feds answer questions
  • Where current events and infosec meet (like the one where a nice Danish man talked about the Ashley Madison hack and online information hygiene)
  • Mostly we’re fucked (that is, the intersection of “how to break shit” and IoT things)

I’ll likely stick to those same themes this year, but I’ll try to go outside of them too.

Be open to new things.

Skills, smells, weird social skills and experiences. There aren’t a lot of spaces like this on earth, so roll with it when it makes sense. You can be in predictable company later.

This was a big part of what friends in the know warned me about. It seems like everyone who’s gone enough times has a story of someone acting like a most memorable piece of shit. I had a couple brushes with annoying sexist nonsense, but clearly not enough to dissuade me to come again this year. (My current prediction is that I’ll get to come three times before something really obnoxious happens, enough to make me say the hell with it and stick to B-Sides, but I look forward to being proven wrong.) However, fucked-up things, of course, aren’t necessarily tied to gender. A male colleague of mine stopped going around DEF CON 12 when he saw someone dancing drunkenly with a live firearm at a party. We all have our limits.

Don’t go to pool parties.

(This is clearly highly subjective, and the friends I went with may likely disagree, but.) Not all dudes (#NotAllDudes) werewolf out at these very guy-centered events with bars, but enough do that I don’t find it worth it when I could be doing anything else. If you also have a certain ungenerous tolerance for risk, go literally anywhere else, because if that place sucks, you can leave much more easily than if you’re in a wet swimsuit. My tolerance for uncertain behavior in social situations out of my control has a pretty hard limit. This is outside of it. You can, of course, decide based on your own “hell no” scale.

If you can go stealth, eavesdrop on non-conference folks.

There are people – unfortunate people, innocent people, sweet summer children – who planned their Vegas escape not knowing what they’d be encountering. They thought they were there to see Cirque and eat crab legs, and they ended up navigating hordes of goons for 14 hours a day. They are hilarious and wonderful. I recommend lingering by customer service or at the buffet to overhear what you can. I felt considerably more badass after overhearing a few minutes of speculation of just what the hell was going on with all the people with skull badges between a clerk and a customer at the Paris casino loyalty club desk.

Seriously, stretch.

Even (especially) if you find yourself in the same room for several sessions in a row. Get up and stretch, especially your quads. You’ll have several days of this. Take care of yourself.

Shopping

It’s worth it to stop by the vendors. The stuff for sale last year typically fell into one of three categories: learning, mayhem, and novelty t-shirts. The first two are pretty alluring to me, and I saw things for sale that one doesn’t typically see anywhere else. It’s worth budgeting for, ideally in cash.

My souvenirs from last year included a pen testing book from No Starch, a couple handcuff shims (you never know), two clear padlocks, and a set of lockpicks for the friend who watched my cats while I was gone. I was pretty satisfied with this, and this year I’ll probably budget for an Ubertooth or something else similarly fun and shiny.

It’s normal, with conferences, to be tempted to wait until the last day to go buy things to try to catch discounts, but at DEF CON, stuff will sell out. If there’s something you really want (and really don’t want to buy online with a credit card), just get it the first day. Nothing is overpriced if you’re satisfied with what you bought and happy with the experience.

One exception is if you wear a smaller t-shirt size. Sizes L and bigger sell out pretty fast, so if you wear one of those: buy sooner. If you’re more of a small or medium: late Saturday or anytime Sunday is a fine time to get your smaller DEF CON shirt with a little break in price.

What I’ll Do Differently This Year

I was pretty satisfied with how last year went, particularly considering the warnings I got. That said, there are a few things I’ll keep in mind when planning my 2017 trip.

Get there on Wednesday night.

Last year, my friends and I used the typical metric of nonprofessional, more culture-centered conferences and planned to arrive on day two. This meant we had access to zero workshops, missed a bunch of DEF CON 101 stuff, and spent more than a day with the flimsy temp badges they give out once the rad ones are gone. It was not an unreasonable approach, but it was wrong and a bit of a bummer. This time, we’re getting in on Wednesday night.

Figure out parties and villages to visit ahead of time.

Last year, though I was told about this, I didn’t quite get how much of DEF CON is in the side events. Deep down, I am basically Hermione, so the idea of paying for a conference and not going to as much of its official programming as I reasonably could just did not compute. This time, I’m going to ask my friends to help me be more fun than comes naturally to me sometimes.

Tell people who say stupid things to fuck off.

I’m really only thinking of a single situation here, but I was still in “I’m new, I’m a guest in this place and trying to learn it” mode, so I didn’t say anything, and clearly it still bothers me. So: I’ll say something next time. If someone else feels safe to be a little obnoxious, I’ll remind myself that I have the privilege to risk the same. There were 22,000 people there last year. I can tell someone acting like an ass to get the hell away from me, and I’ll go try my luck with the other 21,999.

What I’ll Repeat

Roll with a group of women.

Our lady quad occasionally picked up other lone women like an awesome Katamari, and it was a great way to meet interesting people. It was easier to take chances and drift away for a few hours because I knew I could rejoin my group of understanding friendlies whenever I needed to. (If you’re a woman going solo to DEF CON, feel free to say hello. We would love to meet you.)

Revel in the very short women’s bathroom lines, because when do I ever get to experience that otherwise. (Infosec and infosec-adjacent conferences, that’s when. I don’t like what it’s a symptom of, but I’ll take a very small bit of ease in the meantime.)

Stay nearby, but not in the conference hotel itself.

I liked being able to use wifi when I tucked in for the night (though there are reasonable arguments that even this is not a great move), and there was something calming about leaving the middle of the action and being able to turn off my situational wariness.

In Conclusion

I’m an engineer with a love of people breaking shit, making shit do what it was not originally intended to do, and smartasses in general. I liked DEF CON. I’m looking forward to it again – enough to deal with Las Vegas in bloody July. However, it’s very much its own weird animal. It’s a self-selected group that’s different than any I’ve ever circulated amongst before. But, like most groups of humans, most people are benign, some are interesting, some are “interesting,” some are lovely, and some are viruses with shoes. I’d say, in going to DEF CON, your chances of having something unpleasantly memorable happen are higher than among the average population, but not so high that it’s worth skipping if you also like the things I listed above.

There are situations, though, that don’t fit neatly into the suggestions and categories I set out above, so I’ll leave you with some miscellaneous observations from my notebook to place you in the setting in a more immediate way.

  • 98.6 degrees in here, and a pervasive recurring smell of farts and accumulated humanity.
  • Opinionated, reality-divorced emitters of skin clouds and biome signature
  • Apparently a room full of dudes will not understand why you shouldn’t text your dick to someone
  • The current version of the US military interrogation manual is online and freely available
  • 3 pm: am mostly sure I am not the source of the back row funk cloud here. 3:30: rest of row left. Less sure, although funk cloud also left, so…
  • Being a woman with a wordsmith background and a tendency to observe behavior may make me an ideal mole-type. Stereotypes help us defend ourselves (or have), but we can still exploit that shit.
  • Social engineering as a woman, at a talk by women, for surprised men

However, I hope, if you’re tempted, you’ll just go for it. Come say hi if you do. And, while you’re there, try to sleep enough, don’t get too fucked up and hungover, and keep your water bottle full. And, with luck, I won’t be back here in August or in another year or two, writing about how all the warnings were right. With luck, you’ll have a good time too, if you decide to go for it.

A Little More Information, if You Want It

If you’re still figuring out how to do this, here are some more resources for you.

<PennsylforniaGeek/>: The Road to DEFCON

This is the detailed post I was looking for last year. You get to have it, at least.

Reddit: a good breakdown of likely costs for the whole event

There are ways around some of these things, of course. I used Southwest points for my flight this year and am splitting a nearby Airbnb with friends, so we have more room for less money. Last year, I tried to have one good, robust meal out per day so that I wouldn’t feel too messed up from Clif bars and breakfast buffets. Figure out what you need to feel like a functioning human; budget for that. Find a roommate online if you’re broke and brave. There’s a good chance you can make this work, if you’re willing to hustle a little. 

An outsider’s view of what all the fuss is about

It gets fucked up sometimes. One of my remarkable bits of good luck is that malignant dudes mostly let me live my life. Other women are not so lucky. This post gives you an idea of what another side of the experience, quite different than mine, can be like. Take care of yourself, please. We need you.

Linked above, but worth repeating: an overview of how wifi works and what a Pineapple is, with a list of event-specific precautions on slide 17.

 

*I like to travel, you see, and I can get very wrapped up in planning it out.

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