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'Ethics challenge' softens hacker con
Kevin Poulsen, SecurityFocus 2001-05-31

Cyber Ethics contest will join Hacker Jeopardy and Spot the Fed at DefCon.

Summer is approaching, and with it the annual Bacchus of silicon and beer known as the DefCon hacker convention. But this year, for the first time, a kinder, gentler DefCon will reward righteous and upstanding behavior as much as computer intrusion skill, with a contest that challenges attendees' sense of "cyber ethics".

Call it a sign of the times. Last year, the increasingly mainstream convention drew over four thousand people: hackers, security professionals, law enforcement and intelligence agents, along with scores of reporters from around the world. Now in its ninth year, the 2001 conference will take place July 13th through 15th in Las Vegas, and the convention hotel is already fully booked.

In addition to detailed technical presentations, tee-shirt sales and all-night partying, DefCon is renown for its games, like the "Social Engineering Competition", in which hackers show off their talent at conning people into divulging confidential information over the phone; the hard-core "Capture the Flag" game, where they compete to crack each others' machines; and the perennial favorite, "Spot the Fed."

Into this mix comes "CyberEthical Surfivor" (Surf-ivor, a pun). The brainchild of veteran infowar proselytizer Winn Schwartau, the competition is inspired by his new book "Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids," a comically illustrated child-friendly tome that Schwartau says he wrote after catching his youngest son hacking into a neighbor's computer.

CyberEthical Surfivor will pit two teams of nine hackers head-to-head in a public struggle with weighty moral decisions. Example: You are seventeen-years-old, about to graduate to an Ivy League university when a vindictive teacher monkey-wrenches your academic dreams by wrongly flunking you on a final exam. The Principal won't listen to you. Should you crack the school's computer and give yourself the grade you deserve?

The rules of the contest are patterned after the CBS reality game show "Survivor," with a dash of NBC's flagging British-import "The Weakest Link." The audience will help judge the ethical quality of the teams' answers, with losing sides forced to vote off one of their own after each round. A panel of celebrity judges will settle disputes, with Schwartau himself filling the Jeff Probst / Anne Robinson role.

"Everyone I've talked to, from feds to academia to the hacking community says its going to be great," says Schwartau.

Unlike less warm-and-fuzzy DefCon competitions, losers will not be obliged to swill beer or remove articles of clothing. In the end, only one ethically-pure ultimate "Surfivor" will remain standing, winning $800 in "cyber ethics" material to donate to the school of his or her choice.

If the setting is odd, the contest's timing couldn't be better. Security experts and law enforcement officials are increasingly blaming lack of ethics training in school for a glut of computerized hack attacks performed by teens. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) even launched a "Cybercitizen Partnership" to help educators influence the behavior of America's youngest netizens, and a National Conference on CyberEthics met last October in Arlington, Virginia.

But will soul searching and ethical self-examination fly in the red-hot center of cyberpunk culture? "I'm trying to inject something new into DefCon, absolutely," says Schwartau. "But I'm not trying to teach ethics. We just want to expose the issues."

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