Proceed With Caution to Security Conferences: Black Hat, DEF CON and BSides Hit Las Vegas

The trifecta of security conferences is upon us: Black Hat, DEF CON and BSides are all taking place in Las Vegas in late July and early August. These three conferences all have their own personalities, histories and reasons for existence; their commonality lays within the desire to share knowledge on a grand scale. Be it via structured presentations, contests, vendor booths or entertainment events, the sharing of knowledge remains at the forefront.

Sliding up right behind the altruistic sharing of knowledge is the crafting of opportunities open to all attendees, be they high-powered executives looking for a solution to their data security issues to out-of-work security practitioners looking for their next gig. The business side of the event hits you full force as you wind your way through presentations, booths and networking events.

Should I Attend Security Conferences?

Amazingly, this is a frequent question, and one that needs no caveats attached to the answer: Yes. Yes, Black Hat, DEF CON and BSides are all security conferences absolutely worth attending, for two very clear reasons: information-packed presentations and expos and networking with industry experts and researchers.

Is Black Hat Safe?

Forget what you may have heard about Black Hat. This conference has morphed from being the edgy spinoff of DEF CON to the current iteration owned by CMP Media, which brought some formality and added a bit of starch to its britches. Attendees now come to hear about research and solutions. In days of old, the attendees would be predominantly those who burned the midnight oil creating exploits and scripts that induced machines to behave in an unanticipated manner. That said, the conference is not stodgy in the least and is always full of entertaining events, speakers and new revelations.

A famous pastime in the early DEF CON and Black Hat conferences era was “spot the fed” contests — which wasn’t so difficult, given that often the feds were the ones wearing suits and ties. While there still may be some of these investigators present, the bulk of attendees and speakers are reputable professionals.

Do I Need to Take Precautions?

Yes. You should always take precautions when attending any conference, even more so when the conference brings together thousands of the most mischievous minds in technology. The No. 1 precaution is not to become a victim of social engineering.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, social engineering typically involves leveraging human interaction to glean private data and security information. And some conference attendees are very good at it: There is even a contest during DEF CON known as capture the flag, which is entirely focused on gathering information with this method. During this event, participants contact unsuspecting individuals and companies and attempt to use social engineering to collect organizational details. Points are given for various types of data, such as network configuration, door combinations, cleaning contractors, email addresses and more.

In addition to guarding your mind, you also have to protect your devices. Keep your gear with you at all times and don’t permit others to insert objects like memory cards or USB sticks into them. And while this isn’t unique to these conferences, make sure you turn your attention to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth security. Don’t use open networks and have your Bluetooth preferences locked in the nonsharing position. If you must use Wi-Fi, always — and this is nonnegotiable — use a VPN.

You may even want to leave your credit and debit cards at home. DEF CON is so worried about data leaks it doesn’t even allow for advance registration. Instead, attendees pay cash only at the door. Arriving with cash and avoiding ATMs during your stay is likely the smartest move.

The purpose of the conferences is sharing knowledge. Ensure the information you are sharing is what you wanted and don’t fall victim to common schemes. Any oversharing of personal information could be used to mount a social engineering attack, be it a targeted phishing email campaign or a telephone call designed to purloin sensitive data. Remember, the unscrupulous competitor and the nefarious criminal are and will always be present, so take appropriate precautions, protect your data and enjoy the conferences.

Christopher Burgess

CEO at Prevendra

Christopher Burgess is the CEO of Prevendra, a security, privacy and intelligence company. He is also an author,...