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It's All Geek To Them

Hackers converge on Pittsburgh

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Sitting on a sun deck in the Oakland spring air above a coffee shop that offers wireless connection to the Internet, Mark Trumpbour tries to describe a hacker.

"Wireless networks are a real security problem," he says. "Imagine you're shouting through a megaphone tuned to frequencies only dogs can hear. You're broadcasting things like your bank account number, your PIN, your credit card numbers and so on. A hacker is the dog that can count. And wireless networks are so easy to listen in on, a real dog could practically do it."

If you see conference organizer Trumpbour at the 15th Annual International SummerCon, held in Pittsburgh June 6-8, say "Yo, dawg," and you might get a wink. The oldest of several international computer-hacker conferences, this is the first SummerCon to be held in Pittsburgh, although several of the convention's organizers are based here; past gatherings were held in Amsterdam and Washington, D.C. According to regular SummerCon attendee mmc9 (the online alias that will serve as her only identification), SummerCon attracts "goths, geeks, cool geeks, geeky-geeks, security experts, federal agents (covert or overt), straights like me and one or two newspapers. These people in virtual life are separated by one or two degrees, but in real life are separated by the full six. It is interesting to see everyone in the real world."

The hacker community has the same needs as the PTA or your local church: They need to be in physical proximity to communicate certain information. That's most interesting because hackers exist to exchange or provide very specific information about decentralized systems, mostly involving computers and software.

The hot ticket at this year's event is sure to be a special presentation by FBI Special Agent Tom Grasso of the bureau's High Tech Crimes Task Force, not to be missed by anyone considering the life of the "black hat," insider lingo for those hackers whose activities take an illegal slant. Don't worry, "white hat" amigos, the FBI is only interested in old-style crimes those with a processor grafted on to them: confidence schemes, bank robbery and fraud. According to local network security expert Jon Lin: "Regardless of black hat, white hat or indifferent, there may be some nugget of information one can take advantage of. He will be very careful about what he says."

The friction between some legitimate hackers and the FBI underscores the public's lack of understanding of hackers. In between the tall tales of "My Greatest Hack Ever," seminars on "The Evolution of Next Generation Web-based Attacks" and liberal trips to the bar, conference organizer and SummerCon torch bearer Louis Trumpbour (Mark's brother) hopes the hacker community will understand the burden it shares with the media in crafting a broad and honest discourse about hacking. "The hacker community does not know itself and, in the long term, we have to find a way to change that."

June 6-8, University Club of Pittsburgh, Oakland; summercon.org, 412-621-1890

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