HoHoCon 1993: A Review
By Netta "grayarea" Gilboa
I met my first Con attendee at the airport while waiting for the shuttle to the hotel. I asked the driver if there were any sushi bars nearby and the hacker, who asked to be identified as Spacebar, lifted his sweater and showed me he was wearing a T-shirt from a sushi bar. We checked into the hotel (where about two dozen hackers were already gathered in the lobby) and took off to eat $1 a piece sushi at Mister Wasabi. It's worth noting my room was $50 a night with an "airline traveler" discount as opposed to $69 for the discounted HoHoCon group rate.
After dinner we joined the group in the lobby. It didn't take long to realize this Con was much bigger than PumpCon. In all, 230 people registered for what we affectionately called "LobbyCon." Yet, I spoke to several who hadn't attended the formal sessions or who attended but opted not to pay the $5 registration fee.
It also didn't take long for some police action to occur. Two rooms at the Super 8 decided to link their phone lines together. Instead of draping the phone cords which might have gone unnoticed, they ran a phone line down the hallway. A security guard saw the phone cord and noticed the phone jack had been removed from the wall in one of the rooms. Three police cars arrived to deal with this emergency. They questioned one minor at length, got him to waive his rights and had the hotel print out the room's telephone bill. They had been scanning local numbers looking for a PBX. One of the police officers tried to represent himself as being affiliated with the EFF! In the end, the occupants of one room were left alone while the occupants of the room in which the computer was located were told they could attend the Con sessions but could not stay in the hotel otherwise. They were not given a refund on their room and slept in a car in the parking lot of a nearby mall.
One Con attendee took it upon himself to debate the police and security guards about their actions. Several dozen people gathered to watch. This incident put a damper on the evening and most of the Super 8 guests either holed up in their rooms or went over to the Hilton to party. A lot of us stayed in the lobby as the Hilton told us it was okay to stay there and even to make noise. They later became angry enough to threaten to cancel the Con after Bob Dobbs and HoHoCon stickers were plastered on hotel doors, framed pictures and in ashtrays. Several people removed the stickers and other than one guy who put them up and scoffed at the hotel, I noted swift action taken by the group to resolve the problem.
During this flurry of activity I met Drunkfux, the Con's organizer. I came away damned impressed with him. He has a superb memory and remembered things I and others asked him for no matter how busy he got. He also treated me well despite the fact that not all of his Con guests like me. When push comes to shove, Drunkfux is a mench. Considering the morals and scruples (or lack of them) of many in this community, that is a major compliment.
Conversations in the lobby were of a fairly high caliber. Many were unhappy that police presence diminished their plans to hack and/or get wasted. Others were thrilled for the chance to converse and debate instead. At least 50 people gathered in various parts of the lobby. I joined one group where a Canadian security consultant was asking the group why they choose to hack, crack, phreak and distribute viruses. He got some honest answers and expressed relief that they agreed to talk to a guy in a suit. He passed out his business card freely and I couldn't help but wonder whether he'd experience annoying calls or more when he got home. He definitely didn't change his views any, as a later conversation revealed that he didn't really buy their arguments.
Upstairs in the rooms people were partying heavily. One room had a nitrous tank set up. I also saw people on LSD, Ecstasy, PCP, marijuana and what seemed like every possible brand of beer sold. There was a fire in one of the rooms at the Super 8 and the Hilton's UNIX system was penetrated too (I was flattered to hear someone liked me enough to go to such trouble to look up my room number). Several people tried to card pizzas using stolen credit card numbers but I heard they kept messing up the digits and they ended up hungry. Shortly after I heard that, I saw a Domino's delivery man and asked him what room he was headed for. I figured anyone ordering pizzas (these were legal, by the way, paid for with cash) after midnight must still be wide awake and I decided to invite myself to their room. I asked the guys I was talking to if they cared to join me and they said sure.
I knocked on the door and asked the guy who opened it if we could come in and say hi. They said yes and I spent several hours in there. We didn't talk about anything special but had a lot of fun watching Eight Ball stumble around the room drunk until he passed out.
I headed back to the lobby after a few hours for variety and invited myself into another conversation. I met Nocturnus and Renegade Chemist who clearly didn't like me even though I had never chatted with either before. I also met a hacker from another country who took off to go trashing at Southwestern Bell. People warned him not to bother as it had been done earlier that day (along with a nearby GTE office and the trash at both hotels). He came back hours later with a souvenir map of TX and was intrigued Southwestern Bell was still pasting things up manually rather than using desktop publishing software. I also met a documentary filmmaker who wanted real hacker dialogue to work with. He later told me he taped over 15 hours of HoHoCon conversations. I wondered where they'd end up. I was relatively sure I would have been asked not to tape because I was "press" but not one person asked him or cared if he was really a filmmaker or a fed. Having a penis sure carries a lot of weight in parts of the hacking community.
The conversation got way better after Nocturnus and Renegade Chemist left. I started talking to Voyager and this conversation was one of the highlights of my trip.
By then it was 7 a.m. on Saturday so I went upstairs to change my clothes for the next day. Drunkfux had offered me the chance to speak and after some hesitation on my part I decided to accept. The Con was so large it seemed the easiest way to have some people I wanted to meet find me. I also wanted to give people the opportunity to hear about this magazine I caught a quick two hour nap and headed back downstairs.
The sessions started late due to the long time it took to collect money and give raffle tickets to so many people. Bruce Sterling spoke first. He surprised all of us by speaking out against viruses. It was definitely the most controversial talk of the day. I spoke to two people later who agreed with him, dozens who didn't and a few who felt only parts of his talk had been factually correct. Sterling's talk made everyone laugh and think. He also surprised us by releasing disks with The Hacker Crackdown on them. The book will now be available for free on the Net with a new introduction and a new afterward.
Ray Kaplan spoke next. I'd heard good things about him but had no idea who he was. Ray raised issues about hacking ethics and the need for hackers to open dialogues with security agents and feds. Reactions to his talk were so positive that he eventually had to stop answering questions due to time constraints long before the audience was done asking them.
A talk on cryptography came next. The two presenters, Jim McCoy and Doug Barnes, were delighted not to have to explain PGP and the Clipper Chip to an audience yet again. Cryptography issues are definitely at the forefront of the future.
People were jonesing for a bathroom and food break by then so we recessed for 45 minutes. No one got much of a break though because five different T-shirts were offered for sale as well as baseball cops that said "I (heart) Cops" and HoHoCon '92 video tapes. You should have seen the lines. Two of the shirts sold out as did the hats.
I spoke first after the break. I was nervous but got across our statement of purpose and a brief description of each issue. I announced intentions to sell magazines in the back of the room but sold out of half of them before I ever got there! I sold out of everything I brought and came home with about 40 people's addresses (long destroyed) to send them issues to complete partial sets I had left.
A writer for Nuts and Volts spoke next. We spent some time together during the weekend and I came away impressed with his superb technical knowledge and his gift for conversation.
John Draper, "Capt. Crunch," spoke next and I was still busy selling magazines. I heard him discuss the Rave scene as well as visiting Russia and China and the hackers he met there.
Simion from Russia followed and contradicted Sterling by saying viruses were not a problem in his country. He said systems are easy to penetrate but that there is little interest. He focused mainly on warez and boasted that Russian hackers get new software releases before they hit American stores. He said there are several pirate BBSs there and people routinely swap disks as they do here.
The Legion of Doom spoke next about their decision to market old BBS message bases. Reporters from Vibe, the LA Times and a Japanese magazine snapped their pictures. Audience members also snapped away including one man who claimed to be from the phone company. He later shot photos of many Con attendees and then went outside and wrote down the license plates of every car in both hotel parking lots!
LoD has gotten a lot of flak because they are charging money for these disks. In my opinion, they have a right to sell their work for whatever they please. The sysops who are providing messages to them incurred costs for phone lines and equipment and LoD clearly has their cooperation. I might have a different view if I heard people complaining about their old messages being seen by others, but no one has even raised that as an issue.
Chris Goggans spoke next, showing the electronic toys he had shown at PumpCon. Only about a dozen people were at both Cons so neither my speech nor his were really repeats.
Count Zero and Kingpin spoke next to distribute 30 copies of a strange document supposedly from the Central Intelligence Agency. It contained some astronaut conspiracy theories and claimed the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man was created as government propaganda. I had a hard time believing documents from 1971 could still be on the CIA's computers in 1992, but several hackers assured me that part of it was entirely possible. Real or not, the documents were gray.
A raffle came next with prizes such as a 486SX-25 and a complete, used Apple IIe system. We donated five sets of Gray Areas magazines but two of them were stolen before they could be raffled off! There were some T-shirts, a poster and some gag gifts like a 90210 toy Jeep.
The last speaker was Steve Ryan, an attorney who specializes in computer law and works closely with the EFF. He was excellent and addressed several recent cases as well as providing an overview of present and future regulation and financial backing of the Internet.
By the time the sessions were over people had glanced through Gray Areas. I was given several people's zines for review, as well as disks, videos and compliments. I headed for dinner with five others (yes, to Mister Wasabi again!) and talked about everything from anime to child pornography to kahlua and Austin, TX apartment prices.
Back at the hotels there was more police presence. Several people were playing with packet radio on a desk in the lobby and I walked over there for a second. A security guard came over and noticed that the hotel's desk phone was missing its ear piece. The guard told me that this was the excuse he'd been waiting for and that he was going to go call the police. I tried to tell him the missing piece would probably be returned within a few hours but he still headed for the phone. The second he left someone on an upper floor sprayed silly string which landed in mid-air on some tinsel the hotel had up for Christmas. Destruction of property seems to be a popular pastime at Cons. A large percentage of attendees have little experience traveling and staying in hotels. I spoke to several for whom it was their first trip away from home. Some of the veterans have opted to be juvenile delinquents for life.
I went to a room which had hired strippers for an S/M show to warn them the police were on their way. The police eventually headed there but knocked on the wrong door. I was not admitted to watch the strippers nor was I invited into any of the rooms showing porn tapes. I was invited to go out to a strip club but I declined. A group of us sat and talked in the lobby amidst police, security, feds, hotel guests and a large group of Texaco employees attending their holiday party.
At the Super 8 I visited a room that was set up with seven or eight terminals. Mindmixer was on IRC using VMS and I found it interesting to see how differently the commands showed up from the UNIX systems I am used to when I log on. Winter stopped by to chat for a few minutes and I had fun talking to him. I tore myself away from that room and went back to the Hilton. The whole point of being at a Con seemed to be to talk to people live instead of on IRC.
I ran into some people who asked me what I thought of the Con. They invited me to their room to learn some new IRC commands. I am very grateful to these guys for spending some four hours with me so that I could better understand what hacking involves. They answered all of my questions and helped me learn how to send fakemail, check out where people on IRC are really dialing in from and they showed me the process of obtaining root on a site. Thanks guys. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip!
I left their room exhausted after 4 a.m. The Hilton lobby was now dead except for one guy. I headed off for sleep.
Sunday morning held even more conversations and a cool Mexican lunch. I had plans to shoot photos of Chris Goggans at 3 p.m. but he proposed an alternative plan. I had a final chat at the airport with Veggie and Strick. They'd had a great time too.
My only complaint about HoHoCon was that name labels (even if optional) would have helped a lot. I'd like to name about two dozen other people I spoke to and liked but can't remember their handles. Greets to those I remember: White Knight, Voyager, Legacy, Veggie, AKA, Intrepid Traveler, Zibby, and many, many more.
Drunkfux sure knows how to throw a party. As the Grateful Dead
sing, "Thank you for a real good time!"