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Hackers gather for Def Con in Las Vegas


This weekend, thousands of hackers are gathering in Las Vegas at DEF CON, an annual conference dedicated to hacking and cybersecurity. NPR's Shannon Bond is there to find out what people are hacking these days. Hi, Shannon.


ESTRIN: So what's the scene like out there in Vegas?

BOND: Well, you know, DEF CON, they call it hacker summer camp. It's part of the series of security conferences that take place in the summer here. It's nice and hot. And I will tell you, it does kind of have a bit of a festival vibe. Like, watching people walk by me right now, there are folks here wearing costumes. Some people are literally wearing tinfoil hats. There are people who are selling and trading these, you know, badges with, like, the light-up LED symbols on them. One guy even had one you could play a video game on. There's a scavenger hunt. There are all these contests. They're called capture the flag. And people come here from all over the world, and, you know, it's a really interesting array. It's, you know, computer scientists, community college students, you know, people who work at federal agencies, even some little kids here.

ESTRIN: Wow, OK. Nerdy hacking summer camp. This sounds great. Is this, like, people hunched over keyboards? What are - what's going on there?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, people are hacking all kinds of things. I mean, if you can break into it, it's here - you know, cars, voting machines, medical devices. There's an area where you can learn to pick locks. And in fact, you know, there's a lot of people who are really experienced at breaking into devices. People tell first-timers here at DEF CON to be careful of their devices. I met a college student from Miami. Her name is Genesis Guardado (ph), and she's attending the conference for the first time. She said DEF CON has inspired her to up her cybersecurity.

GENESIS GUARDADO: You can, like, hack into Wi-Fis, people's hotel rooms and, like, get your credit card information. It's pretty wild. I've got my RFID blocking. I've got my VPN. I've got everything to secure myself.

BOND: Because, of course, you don't want to get hacked at the hacking conference.

ESTRIN: Right.

BOND: On the less-than-personal-device level, there's also a lot of focus this year on artificial intelligence, right? We've been talking so much about, you know, chatbots like ChatGPT, Google Bard. That's a big focus here.

ESTRIN: So are people actually hacking ChatGPT?

BOND: Yeah. There's a contest. It's probably the thing that's getting the most attention here. Thousands of people have been lining up for this contest, where the point is to make some of these chatbots go rogue. So they are testing out ChatGPT as well as tools from Meta and Google and other companies to see if they can get them to produce misinformation or bias or security violations. Like, you know, can you get the AI to make up something about a politician, to reproduce, you know, sexist or racist stereotypes? Can you get it to give you private information like a credit card number? And you get points if you're able to do this, and that's what people are competing for.

ESTRIN: Oh, wow. So have you seen any successful hacks on ChatGPT?

BOND: Yeah. You know, we - I talked to a couple people. You know, somebody was able to get it to divulge a credit card number it wasn't supposed to.

ESTRIN: Oh, wow.

BOND: You know, I talked to folks who got it to give instructions about how to surveil someone without their knowledge, you know, using, you know, apps on your phone. You know, there are a lot of things you can get these apps to do.

ESTRIN: What's the point of the whole contest, though?

BOND: Well, for winners, it's obviously bragging rights. So they get some expensive computer equipment. They get to go to a live hacking event this fall. You know, for the companies that are participating, you know, this is important to them. They do this kind of testing internally. But, you know, here at DEF CON, it's a much larger set of people from many different backgrounds who are who are testing this stuff out. And they're hoping they're going to find problems that the companies aren't even aware of. And then they'll use that data to help improve their system.

I should say the contest is also being backed by the White House. It's part of the Biden administration's push for responsible development of AI. You know, the president, lawmakers, they're grappling with how to write rules for this fast-growing field. And the hope is this contest is going to be part of these efforts that will make these models safer for all of us.

ESTRIN: That's NPR's Shannon Bond, trying not to get her phone hacked at the annual DEF CON hacker convention in Las Vegas. Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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