Black Hat and Defcon Founder Jeff Moss: What Is the ‘Hacker Mindset?’

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More than 15,000 computer nerds – hackers, government officials, security company officials and who knows who else – spent a few days in Las Vegas recently for an unusual set of conventions.

The subject on everyone’s minds was cyber attacks – computer hacking into systems for fun and profit and international intrigue. The Black Hat convention, which costs up to $5,000 to attend, and the much cheaper Defcon convention, (a bargain at only $140 – cash only) dealt directly with such security issues. The phrase I kept hearing over and over while visiting the conferences for a series of NewsHour stories was that attendees wanted to learn from the bad guys, in order to better defend against online attacks.

One of the most intriguing folks we ran into was Jeff Moss, who founded both conventions 17 years ago — when people looked askance at the whole idea of a hackers convention. Moss, who is now 40, describes himself as a geek but is certainly no slouch – striking up conversations with some of the brightest and most clever computer experts in town for the annual festivities.

The conventions are billed as the biggest and best computer security meetings in the world, and they are especially timely because of increasing attention on hacking. Professional criminals are penetrating bank and online businesses, and stealing millions and millions of dollars. And countries are learning how to hack into other countries’ electric grids, air traffic control systems, water supplies and the like.

The Pentagon reports thousands of attempts every day. Those cyber attacks (some call it cyber war) could cripple a nation’s defenses, and in fact, there have been several cases reported.

Watch Tuesday’s NewsHour for Spencer’s full report on cybersecurity, the first in a three-part series.

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