DEFCON for N00bs

UPDATE: There is now a Git repo for people to submit tips, tricks, and advice! Why a Git repo you ask rather than a wiki? It allows people to pull in an offline copy quickly and easily, whilst still allowing collaboration and merging of pulls.


Last Updated: March 29th, 2016 (please use the Github version for latest information, as this is out of date).

NOTE: This doc is under constant development, and fairly incoherent still. Use with caution. What has worked for me may not for you, in much the same way that while I configure my firewall rules such that they work yours may burst into flame.


DEFCON generally needs no introduction. However, I am aware that there will be people not familiar with the security industry and culture attending. Sometimes they are sent by employers, sometimes they are just curious and happen to be in Vegas. For those who are unaware, all I will say here is that the networks are some of the most hostile you will encounter, the Wall of Sheep is real and easy to get on, and this event is the combination of some of the most brilliant minds in industry and some of the most annoying pranksters/drunks. The history of DEFCON and its background are generally out of scope for this document, I recommend you UTFSE if you are still reading this and haven’t moved on yet to the details.

Preparing for the event

Events such as DEFCON are a bit different from many other conferences and large gatherings. There are some precautions that every attendee should take to protect both their information, and their tech.

Prepare your identity
When one attends DEFCON, they do not use their names (except maybe at the airport and hotel check ins, if you still are developing those social engineering skills). When you introduce yourself, you will not use your name. You will use your handle. This serves multiple purposes.

  • Protects your identify from nefarious uses
  • Ensures that there are not 500 different “Bob” names you have to remember to separate
  • Allow shenanigans to remain anonymous (and yes, they are inevitable)
  • Get used to introducing yourself as your handle, and using the respective identifier for any friends or colleagues of yours there. It is easy to let a real name accidentally slip.

Prepare your Supplies
Most of the supplies necessary for DEFCON are going to be basic conference supplies, with a few caveats.

  • Bag for swag and gear (better be comfortable for using all day)
    Water bottle and snacks (stay hydrated, easy to forget that with a lot going on)
  • Good attire (a.k.a. cool and comfortable attire, or something crazy like a Mohawk and kilt if that’s your thing)
  • Notepads or something non-electronic for notes (electronic is fine given the prep detailed further, but it is not recommended you rely on it)
  • Cash (credit cards are accepted at some vendors, but not the vent itself and generally you want to avoid using a piece of plastic that requires your ID and real name)
  • Any gear necessary to complete any training, learning, or competitions you plan to enter into. This includes lock picks, tool boxes, embedded system boards and debuggers, etc.
  • PGP fingerprints on business cards or similar for key signing parties

Secure your tech
The wireless at DEFCON is fair game for anything. The wired network, while supposed to be a safe haven, is still extraordinarily hostile. Cellular networks below current 4G LTE are considered generally hostile at this event, as demonstrated by the WASP in previous years. However, even modern cellular protocols must be used with caution. Below are some suggestions for securing your tech and accounts. Of course, these are only guidelines. Any experienced member of this community likely has another solution of their own.

If you do not understand how to protect your gear effectively, e.g. if the words in the lists below are gibberish to you, then you likely should avoid bringing any tech to the event.

Laptops should never be out of your sight if at all possible. Many people choose to put on a fresh OS with bare essentials, and nuke the thing from orbit after the event… It’s the only way to be sure. In practice, you can protect a long term machine, and even a work machine. But you have to take into account the value of the data on that machine, and understand the implications of what you are doing.

Here are some general recommendations for Laptops at DEFCON, assuming it is not desired to be nuked afterwards:

  • Encrypted Hard Drive. This should be a no-brainer, however if possible one should use Self Encrypting Hard Drives / SSDs. Software solutions like bitlocker and PGP disk store the keys in memory. This is problematic as computer interfaces with Direct Memory Access can read those keys. If you ensure your machine is powered down completely when not in use, and always in your sight when decrypted, then this risk becomes manageable. However, it is still vulnerable to Con Booting beforehand. This is getting involved for the average punk at a con, but if you bring a work machine (like for a company representative), then it is expected to have information valuable enough to perform this. Interfaces with DMA include Firewire, Thunderbolt, Expresscard, and USB 3.0/3.1
  • Firewalls. Again, obvious to most, but then again this guide is meant for the newcomers.
  • VPN software. Setup a remote VPN to a trusted source, and ensure it is setup with a trusted certificate and strong creds. The networks are not considered safe at these events. If you even have an inkling of using the network while in Vegas during this time, this is an essential.
  • Virtual Machines. Any time you choose to do a challenge or anything “dirty” on the networks, or with software provided to you, you better be putting it in a virtual environment. Be cautious if you choose to allow this. Hypervisor exploits are rare, but have existed. DEFCON is the type of event where a 0day for these might pop up. I personally am willing to do challenges using a VM, but then again I generally do analysis of something that executes before I run it.


  • Cable locks and related. While not the most effective at places like DEFCON, it is cheap and easy enough that you should have one for defense in depth.
  • Encrypted external media. External drives should be encrypted, unless you intend to share the contents. In reality, the only reason I personally bring one is to store data long term from events without leaving it on a running machine.
  • Power only USB cables. While you should always use your own charger, bring a USB power cable that has the data lines removed just in case. You can also use a USB Condom to disconnect data lines. If you do not have one, vendors have some that are either transparent or not in cases so you can see what you are getting.
  • Harden your phone. Make sure your phone is not set to automatically connect to networks, and that any apps on it are not using insecure transfer methods. A rooted phone can be beneficial with the addition of ACLs on the su binary, along with application specific firewalls and API calls. Bluetooth and other technologies should be off unless you are sure that the devices have properly implemented security measures.

At the event

The event has arrived and your gear is prepped. You are free to walk around feeling like a bad ass, even to the annoyance of others. But that won’t help you get far, and might just make you a target.
In reality, at the event you need to follow a certain set of rules to protect yourself, gear, and identity. Socially and environmentally the con is hostile.

Here are some of the big, easily performed no-no items:

  • Using an ATM (yes, this has already happened. Better have brought cash or used the casino’s cahier counter)
  • Leaving bags and gear unattended. Be prepared to have everything strapped to you at all times
  • Trusting handouts. Even USB drives and gear handed out by vendors has proved hostile in years past. Better quarantine it if you intend to keep it
  • Pickpockets. Vegas is full of pickpockets. The worst locations are the airports, tourist areas (like the Bellagio fountains), and anywhere with expensive tech (cough-the con-cough)
  • QR Codes and NFC. Those QR codes you see in advertisements are often found around the con, and quite often people stick a code over the original and it links to an exploit