From Hack Story
Volume 0x0e, Issue 0x44, Phile #0x12 of 0x13
|=-----------------------------------------------------------------------=| |=----------------------=[ 25 Years of SummerCon ]=----------------------=| |=-----------------------------------------------------------------------=| |=---------------------------=[ by Shmeck ]=-----------------------------=| |=-----------------------------------------------------------------------=|
It's hard to believe that 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of SummerCon. In the American hacking landscape, SummerCon remains the seminal conference from which all others are modeled. In those early days, interactions between hackers took place through BBSes, as shout-outs in assorted textfiles, on telco voice bridges, and in the pages of Phrack and 2600. For the most part, these interactions were all mediated through some kind of communications infrastructure. SummerCon was an opportunity to change that.
In the 1980s, informal gatherings of hackers had begun to spring up all over the place in America. The European scene was well-organized, with groups like the Chaos Computer Club holding an annual congress of hackers as early as 1984.
There are various theories about why Europe organized more quickly than America. America developed a strong counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s, including an enthusiastic phreaking movement dating back to the early 1970s. Well-known anarchist and Chicago Seven conspirator Abbie Hoffman, along with Al Bell, a well-known telephony enthusiast, launched the first phreak magazine, YIPL: Youth International Party Line in 1971. YIPL became TAP, based out of New York. Though Americans were enthusiastic, TAP found an eager European audience, and Dutch and German activists carried the torch and pushed the boundaries of phreaking in the 1970s. Those phreaks were readily absorbed into the ranks of an already strong and well-established anti-authoritarian movement in Europe. Large-scale meetings, complete with technical demonstrations were the logical next step, so the first big hacker conference, Chaos Computer Congress, took place in Hamburg in 1984.
American hackers remained active during that period, but physical meetings remained elusive. Nevertheless, something like a tipping point for the American hacking scene must have occurred in the summer of 1987. On June 5 of that year, the first 2600 meeting was held in New York City. Only two weeks later, in St. Louis, a small cadre of people who mostly knew each other from exchanges on Metal Shop BBS and through Phrack profiles, met at the Executive International Best Western to embark on a totally new way to advance the American hacking agenda. The first SummerCon set the stage for the way subsequent hacker conferences would be held. To this day PumpCon, HoHoCon, DEFCON, and HOPE stick to the same formula.
Its organizers wanted to foster the physical interaction in meatspace, eschewing the phosphorescent glow of their CRTs to hold a party like none other. Mostly, if the reports from early editions of Phrack are to be believed, though, it was to have a good time. SummerCon has always held its primary goal as forging friendships, because that's how real dialogue and information exchange happens. Yes, there were technical talks. That first SummerCon in 1987 included a long list of technical discussions, but because it was a small gathering, the agenda was ad hoc and seemingly freeform.
Most of the technical discussions centered on things that are pretty far outside modern mainstream infosec discourse: BBSes, fiber optics, and methods of blowing 2600 Hertz headlined the proceedings. In fact, the attendees had a hard time getting started, not really knowing each other or how to begin. But because everyone in attendance had some sort of technical background, these purely technical discussions got people talking to each other, which led to drinking, which led to partying, which, ultimately helped the attendees forge long-lasting relationships with each other. It's how cons have worked ever since.
The success of that first SummerCon naturally implied that another one would be held the following year. Its organizers made a last-minute decision to hold another one. Like modern incarnations of SummerCon, the organizers dithered over details like location, letting inertia play a significant role. While New York City was one possible contender, it was held in St. Louis again.
SummerCon '88 was a controversial one. The technical discussions came a little more easily, and the attendees seemed a little more comfortable, inviting outsiders into their ranks. But one attendee, Dale Drew, using the handle "The Dictator", was actually an informant working with the Secret Service. He helped government agents videotape the proceedings through a two-way mirror in his hotel room. This video evidence was eventually used to indict conference organizer Knight Lightning (the nom de hack of Phrack founder Craig Neidorf) on a federal count of criminal conspiracy as a part of his now-infamous E911 criminal trial. Though the case against Neidorf eventually fell apart, federal interest in SummerCon would remain an ongoing theme for years to come. Other conferences have capitalized on SummerCon mainstays like "Hunt the Fed", now immortalized as DEFCON's "Spot the Fed" contest.
There was a SummerCon in 1990, but a wide federal dragnet for computer crime and Knight Lightning's federal trial tainted it. Perhaps the most chilling reminder of a bad era exists in the announcement for a Christmastime event in Houston called XmasCon, who stated that their event would "replace the painful memories of SummerCon'90 (SCon'90? What do you mean? there was a SummerCon this year? HA. It surprised me too)." Clearly, these were bad times in the hacker community.
In 1991, the freshly acquitted Knight Lightning rebranded SummerCon as "CyberView," because he did not want to trigger any associations with the previous event. Bruce Sterling's comprehensive report (Phrack 33:10, http://www.phrack.org/issues.html?issue=33&id=10#article) included a rationale for the new, if short-lived name. "The convention hotel, a seedy but accommodating motor-inn outside the airport in St Louis, had hosted SummerCons before. Changing the name had been a good idea. If the staff were alert, and actually recognized that these were the same kids back again, things might get hairy." In what can only be described as a SummerCon miracle, a St. Louis swingers' group simultaneously occupied the conference hotel. As with every SummerCon, booze was a factor.
SummerCon 92 saw a dramatic increase in the number of participants, with 73 reportedly in attendance. Summercon 93 was the last year a SummerCon took place in St. Louis. Summercon 95 marked a changing of the guard, with the event taking place in Atlanta, hosted by Erik Bloodaxe and his LoD colleagues. Over 200 hackers came; several were arrested. The following year, SummerCon 96 moved to Washington, DC.
Periodically moving the conference became a ritual to prevent the event from getting too stale and to ensure that a willing hotel could be found, since SummerCon had a reputation of being a rowdy conference. The move to Washington, D.C. offered an easy venue for members of the East Coast hacker community; members of L0pht came in from Boston, hackers from Pittsburgh had a simple commute, and the NYC scene was well represented. The local law enforcement community was in full force as well, with several raids taking place during the event.
During that time period, the organizers of SummerCon were losing enthusiasm for running the event. It is a thankless job, and requires coordinating a tremendous number of people, places, and event staff, all while keeping law enforcement officials at bay. During Summercon 97 in Atlanta, a stalwart of the DC hacking community going by the handle Clovis convinced the current organizers to transfer the domain name to him so that he could take over the organizational aspects of the conference. It was a relief to the current organizers, who were frankly happy to be done with the annual headache.
In 1998, Clovis, leaning heavily on his younger brother for organizational support, threw SummerCon in Atlanta. For the next three years, SummerCon would be held in Atlanta, though SummerCon 2000 was notable because the hotel that was slated to host it conveniently lost contracts for the event the day before it was to take place, leaving Clovis no rooms for technical discussions. The nonplussed attendees set up shop in the Omni CNN Center Hotel bar, where ad hoc presentations took place, much to the consternation of hotel guest who did not expect to get a dose of information security discourse over their cocktails. The hotel that originally objected to hosting a hacker conference, did not mind the steady stream of bar sales one bit.
Clovis had ambitious plans for SummerCon. For 2001, envisioned a global conference, which would draw an audience from around the world. He thought Amsterdam would be a good location, and looked into bulking up the technical backend of the event. For the first time SummerCon would be shown live through a RealStream video server to anyone who wanted to watch.
It was daunting. Everything was expensive. Clovis' younger brother had to figure out a mountain of customs paperwork to ship all the t-shirts and conference badges overseas. In short, every part of SummerCon 2001 was an enormous headache, but in the end it was a fantastic event.
About 200 attendees descended on Amsterdam to try an American-style hacker conference. It was very different than the Chaos Computer Club congresses, and nothing at all like the Dutch hacking camp HAL. Many attendees didn't understand why it was held at such an expensive hotel. But the global breadth of attendees and speakers was impressive, and it was generally considered to be a successful conference by all who attended or watched online. The hotel, though pricey, was incredibly easy to work with and provided a safe, enjoyable environment in a tourist-friendly part of Amsterdam.
But Clovis' brother, weary from filling out customs forms, was not so enamored with the idea of doing SummerCon overseas again, and so SummerCon 2002 took place in Washington, D.C. Unlike the affable and easy-going Dutch hotel support staff a year prior, the sales director of the Renaissance Washington D.C. had little patience for the SummerCon organizers. Not mincing words, she announced to Clovis and his staff, "I know about you guys. I know about hacker conferences. If anything happens at this hotel, any kind of funny business, I will throw you all out. We have Presidents of the United States here. I will throw you out." This was six hours before the conference was slated to begin. In spite of her concerns, the conference was successful, the hotel bar did brisk business, and nobody got arrested.
SummerCon enjoyed a stand in Pittsburgh for two years where Redpantz became a member of the planning committee and began to emcee. In these years, SummerCon began to select venues based on how agreeable the bar staff was, because, all things being equal, SummerCon is, in the words of the noted hacker X, "also about drinking a lot of beer." There were several alcohol related incidents in Pittsburgh. One of the organizers was cited by the Pittsburgh Police Department for "simulating a sex act," an incident that he has never lived down. It was in this time period that members of the FBI Cyber Division began to actually offer presentations at SummerCon. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Austin was the site of SummerCon 2005. Internal political squabbling amongst the organizers and the lack of a clear promotional plan for SummerCon meant that attendance was very low-perhaps even lower than the first SummerCon. It was a boozy event and had plenty of quality technical discussions, but only a few people showed up, including some very nice individuals from San Antonio. Luckily, the hotel was also backed with bikers from the annual Republic of Texas motorcycle rally, and everyone was down to party.
Nevertheless, the organizers knew it was time to press the reset button, and a select group was invited to SummerCon 2006 to address the ongoing viability of the event. The organizational core agreed that the next three years should be in Atlanta, with every effort take to rebuild the reputation of SummerCon. That effort to rejuvenate the reputation as the hacker conference with the highest level of technical expertise, coupled with the heaviest intake of alcohol per attendee was well received by the organizational core and future attendees. It was an old formula, and a return to our roots: offer great presentations to get the conversation going, and keep everyone as drunk as possible.
SummerCons in Atlanta were predictably rowdy; in 2007 Billy Hoffman did his best to finish his presentation, and slurred the words, "If I'm not making any sense ya'll just throw a shoe at me or something." Immediately, an attendee threw a shoe that barely missed the staggering speaker, making a loud WHUMP as it struck the projection screen. "Well, okay then..." Billy replied, as he continued his lecture. The SummerCon organizational staff believes that this exchange was the framework for an event that transpired in Iraq in 2008, when an angry man threw his shoes at a surprised President George W. Bush.
When SummerCon moved to New York City in 2010, it had a reputation as a technical smorgasbord and a relentless booze-fest, which, honestly, is a perfect combination. There are very few things you can do to improve on that formula, but the SummerCon organizers found a way, by inviting a burlesque troupe to participate in event planning and hosting an after party.
Being located in New York City made the event to heavy-hitters in the security industry, and the technical aspects of the conference expanded in line with the party dynamic. In 2011, the organizers accepted some sponsorship money, which permitted them to invest more heavily in the presentation side of the event, flying in speakers from far-flung and exotic places like California and Michigan. It also meant that the after party was more outrageous, and was featured as an "Event of the Week" in the local events newsletter "Time Out New York."
There are few things as dependable in the hacking world as SummerCon. Though it has evolved from a small, invite-only gathering to a large, structured conference, it has never lost sight of the importance of its mission: bringing together the brightest minds in information security for the best party of the year. Raise your glass, and toast another 25 years of Summercon!