An occasional reader of this column, whose son works at Intel and is also a reader, got an e-mail from his kid while on vacation the other morning saying, “Cringely is in Boulder so keep an eye out for him.” At that moment we were both in a campground and I was sleeping 30 feet away. It’s a small world. But while these moments keep happening to me and I keep meeting marvelous new friends as a result, I am constantly reminded, too, of how big the technology culture has become and how impersonal it can be. I was especially reminded of that this weekend reading about the DefCon 18 show in Las Vegas where GSM phones were hacked with gusto only a day after the Black Hat conference, held in the same hotel, turned ATM machines into hackable devices spouting $20 bills. Neither surprised me, but they felt too slick and facile compared to the hacks of old.

This weekend was DefCon 18, which received worldwide news coverage. At Def Con 1 (note the different spelling back then), held of course 17 years ago, all the news coverage was left to me, the only reporter to attend.

In those days there were no “independent computer security research organizations.” There were hackers, or more appropriately “crackers,” as they were then known.

Def Con was founded by a guy known back then only as “The Dark Tangent.” It was a computer criminal’s rave where — for reasons I could never quite understand — the cops were invited to watch. But that’s all gone, of course. The Dark Tangent can now legally drink at his own show, he picked up a real name along the way and even an MBA, so of course the show is now supposed to make money. They still play Spot the Fed, with the person who spots the Fed getting a t-shirt that says, “I spotted the Fed,” and the Fed who has been outed receiving a shirt that says, “I am a Fed.” It’s cute, but no longer clever.

DefCon 1 attracted around 150 hackers and crackers to the old Sands Hotel back before ConAir Flight 1 smashed it to bits for a movie. The year was 1993 and InfoWorld, where I worked in those days, wouldn’t pay my way, so I went on my own.

It was surreal. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when my cellphone rang in a session, setting-off four illegal scanners in the same room. As I left to take my call in the hallway I wondered why I bothered?

Note that — 17 years later — the big news from DefCon this week was GSM call hacking. There is nothing new.

There were two high points for me at DefCon 1. First was the appearance of Dan Farmer, then head of data security for Sun Microsystems. Dressed all in black leather with flaming shoulder-length red hair and a groupie on each arm, Dan sat literally making-out in the back row until it was time for his presentation. But that presentation was far more entertaining than the smooching. In a series of rapid-fire slides Farmer showed dozens of ways in which crackers had attacked Sun’s network. He explained techniques that had failed at Sun but would probably have succeeded at most other companies. It was a master class in computer crime and his point, other than to prove that Dan was the smartest guy in the room, was to urge the crackers to at least be more original in their attacks!

But the best part of DefCon 1 was the battle between the kids and hotel security. Contrary to popular belief, breaking into Pentagon computer systems was not very lucrative, so many of the participants in that early DefCon did not have money for hotel rooms. The Dark Tangent handled this by renting the single large meeting room 24 hours per day so it could be used after hours for sleeping. Alas, someone forgot to explain this to the 6AM security shift at the Sands. Just as the hardy group of adventurers returned from a late-night break-in at the local telephone company substation, fresh security goons closed the meeting room and threw the kids out.

It is not a good idea to annoy a computer cracker, but it is a very bad idea to annoy a group of computer crackers bent on impressing each other.

The meeting reconvened at 9 or 10 with the topic suddenly changed to Revenge on the Sands. Gail Thackeray, then a U. S. Attorney from Arizona who at that moment had approximately half the room under indictment, rose to offer her services representing the kids against the hotel management.

Thackeray had been invited to speak by the very people she wanted to put in jail.  I told you this was surreal.

Adult assistance might be nice, but a potentially more satisfying alternative was offered by a group that had breached the hotel phone system, gained access to the computer network, obtained root level access to the VAX minicomputer that ran the Sands casino, and were ready at any moment to shut the sucker down. It came to a vote: accept Thackeray’s offer of assistance or shut down the casino.

There was no real contest: they voted to nuke the casino. Not one to be a party pooper, I voted with the majority.

Gail Thackeray, feeling her lawyer’s oats, was perfectly willing to be a party pooper, though. She explained with remarkable patience that opting en masse to commit a felony was a move that we might just want to reconsider, especially given the three strikes implications for some of the older participants.

We could accept her help or accept a date with the FBI that afternoon. The Sands (now the Venetian), which was ironically owned by the same folks who used to run Comdex, never knew how close it came to being dark.

It was a thrilling moment like you’d never see today. Everyone who was in that room shares a pirates’ bond. And though I can’t defend what we almost did, I don’t regret it.

And like the others, I wish Gail Thackeray had stayed in Arizona and we’d shut the sucker down.