I recently returned from a week on the Olympic Peninsula at ToorCamp where I presented a talk and stayed the week attending workshops, learning electronics, picking locks and other activities. The experience of ToorCamp is very different from Black Hat and Defcon in many ways, the key being the sense of community. Maybe it is because for a week hackers, makers, free thinkers and innovators all became a single tribe, eating together, building together, listening to inappropriately loud music together and more importantly sharing ideas. Unlike some other conferences there were no VIP parties, or overpriced workshops, no elitism, pretentiousness or artifice, everyone was equal, respectful and humble. The diversity of skills to practice and learn throughout the week allowed people to learn something they may have never tried before.
The keynote presentation by Joe Grand ( “Kingpin”) set the innovative tone of the camp perfectly. On the Makah reservation there is very poor cell service it is pretty much non-existent, so participants built their own cell network called ShadyTel ( with FCC approval). We were all given our own SIM card to put into unlocked GSM phones and were able to use the network to not only call each other but also outside the camp, one guy in our camp even called his girlfriend in Australia. Not only did they build the network, but they presented how they did it.
I had a long conversation with the network admin for the camp who also doubled as security. There were certain challenges he faced, most notable some of the participants “doing stupid things” with very limited bandwidth as they only had one DSL line and a satellite connection. He routed DNS through the DSL which helped the speed as it was not relying on the high latency satellite connection. A simple solution to a complex problem that worked and ensured everyone at the camp had basic web access. He was a ToorCamp hero.
Did I mention there were freakin’ laser beams? A group built a photonic beam that shone straight up in the sky that was so powerful they had to get FAA clearance to deploy. Another group had a glove with green lasers coming out from each finger ( Edward Laserhands?), then of course there was a light show in the prime dome every night until 4AM when the music finally died to down to a muffled roar. One useful skill I developed was the ability to sleep through bad house music and dub step :-)
The best presentations were not from the well known celebrity hackers, although they presented as well, but from lesser known researchers who presented tools and vulnerabilities for phones, networks and yes even people. Unlike other conferences where the presenters walk off the stage and back to their hotel room, at ToorCamp it provided an opportunity for more in depth conversations around the camp fire. After my talk I had quite a few long conversations around camp with those who saw my talk and had questions, or ideas I had never thought of.
As I drove home and back into civilization I realized just how important community is in the security industry. With the amount of complexity and unknowns that are dealt with on a day-to-day basis there is no way one person can know everything, it is only through being humble, listening and sharing that the tribe becomes stronger…unless we are “bike jousting” then you are on your own.
Top image and laser photo courtesy of Ratha Grimes under Creative Commons license