Hackers snub US government officials

One of the oldest and largest hacker conventions in the world, the annual Def Con hacking convention has asked U.S. government agents to stay away this year, the first time in its 21-year history, following the leak of documents revealing that the National Security Agency has a program that spies on the internet activities of foreign nationals overseas when they use U.S. providers such as Microsoft and Apple.

“It would be best for everyone involved if the feds call a ‘time out’ and not attend this year,” Def Con founder Jeff Moss said in an announcement posted this week on the convention’s website.

Def Con takes place Aug. 1-4 at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

More than 15000 hackers, researchers, corporate security experts, privacy advocates, artists and others are expected to attend the Las Vegas convention that begins on August 2.

In previous years, the conference has attracted officials from federal agencies such as the CIA, National Security Agency, FBI, Secret Service and all branches of the military.

Last year, General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, was a keynote speaker at the event, which is the world’s largest annual hacking conference. The audience was respectful, gave modest applause and asked about secret government snooping. Alexander denied that the agency had dossiers on millions of Americans, as some former employees had suggested before the Snowden case.

“The people who would say we are doing that should know better,” Alexander said. “That is absolute nonsense.”

Moss, who is an adviser on cybersecurity to the Department of Homeland Security, told Reuters that it was “a tough call”, but that he believed the Def Con community needed time to make sense of the recent revelations about US surveillance programmes.

Alexander is scheduled to speak in Las Vegas on July 31 at Black Hat, a smaller, two-day hacking conference that was also founded by Moss. It costs about $2000 (about R20000) to attend and attracts a more corporate crowd than Def Con, which charges $180.

Moss said he believed Alexander would still speak at Black Hat and that his call for a “time out” only applied to Def Con.

Moss said he invited government officials to Def Con the first year because he thought they would come anyway. They politely declined then showed up incognito, he said. And they have attended every year since.

The gathering has become a fertile ground for recruiting. The US military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement typically compete with corporations to find new talent at Def Con.

Details of the NSA internet surveillance program, which reportedly collected files such as audio and email, were described in leaked documents and described in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian in June, along with another NSA program that collected the phone records of Americans. The information had been leaked by Edward Snowden, the employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

Snowden, 30, is wanted by U.S. authorities, who have charged him under the Espionage Act with unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified intelligence, along with theft of government property.

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