HOPE Number Nine.

Jul 20, 2012

My preparations leading up to HOPE 9 were something of a last minute scramble; at HacDC the night before we left for New York my trusty cellphone of four years decided to give up the ghost. This meant that I had to get to a Sprint store early on Thursday morning, pick out a new phone (a Samsung Galaxy S-2, which appears to be a later model of Lyssa's phone) and set about migrating all of my data in the little time there was before I had to hit the bricks. This meant that I fiddled with my new phone with one hand while eating lunch with the other and spending scant time with Lyssa before trying to head out the door. I then thought better of a two mile walk in ninety degree weather to the Metro station with a suitcase full of equipment dragging behind me. Sometimes, common sense is the better part of valor and so I hailed a cab to the Metro station. From there it was a short ride to Union Station downtown, where I killed a couple of hours looking for Sitwon and Haxwithaxe, drinking coffee, and hunting for functional power outlets. They are surprisingly scarce in Union Station and once we found one it was a stroke of luck that I happened to have a power strip in my luggage so we could top up our devices.

Unusually, we didn't take an Amtrak train to New York City, opting instead for a Boltbus, which many of us have heard about in the DC metroplex. This was actually not a particularly good choice of transportation I'm sorry to report. First off, the Boltbuses are double-decker vehicles, and while it's swell to sit up top and all the way in the back the swelling goes down rapidly. Most of the Boltbus seats on the upper level are cramped and make for an uncomfortable trip. Also, the power was dodgy the whole time and we couldn't be sure that anything we had on us could be recharged. The wireless on the bus was similarly lousy if not practically worthless (the local router/default gateway kept cutting in and out so no packets were going anywhere). I cursed the lack of time to root my phone to enable tethering strongly... but at least cellular service was working becausee we were getting Twitter updates from colleagues who'd gone on ahead and warned us about getting stuck in traffic the likes of which I'd not seen since the double-wide semi overturned on the Beltway a few years ago.

The bus pulled into NYC around 2330 EST5EDT on Thursday night, and after dropping our stuff off in our room at the Hotel Pennsylvania we went on a late night pizza run to grab a slice before bed. Reuven and I tried to meet up with the Telecomix bloom at a nearby pub but by the time we got there everyone was headed for bed. So it goes when you're running late...

To be blunt, avoid the Hotel Pennsylvania at all costs. Sure, it looks pretty on the outside and they take good care of the lobby, but that's about it. The air conditioning is pants and the rooms are tiny even when there is only one person staying in them (four of us were sharing a room that weekend, later on five). The most comfortable way to sleep there was to take a second shower before bed and crash out on the floor, which is fine for a day or two but got to be too much. Word on Twitter has it that one HOPE 9 presenter saw her room, checked out and headed directly for the pod hotel down the street. She had the right idea, and I think I'm going to investigate this pod hotel when next I'm in town.

On Friday morning we picked up our con badges (custom-branded hackerspace passports, actually) at the registration booth, which had a TSA airline security theme this time around. The con staff were wearing the familiar ill-fitting blue fabric vests with "Department of HOPEland Security" emblazoned on them. There was a bit of difficulty when it came to arranging passes for one of the presenters but the HOPE staff was patient, understanding, and as always top notch in all the ways that matter. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that this is the first HOPE at which I barely attended any of the talks. I spent most of the conference either at the HacDC table in the hackerspace village or running around the conference talking to people I knew or fielding questions. I met up with some old friends and colleagues at HOPE and it was good to touch base with them again. I also made a lot of new friends and met some new collaborators (whom I hope got my "Help, I'm swamped!" message). On the whole I think some good things might come from those discussions and remain hopeful.

On Friday afternoon I and my fellow agents of Telecomix in the United States gathered on stage to talk about the role that the group played during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 (and continues to play in 2012). The five of us talked about how we figured out how the Egyptian government cut the country off from the rest of the global Net in February of 2011 and some of the methods Telecomix devised to help the people of Egypt reach out to people. In particular we spoke about the European ISP xs4all.nl reactivating their dialup pools so that people with modems in the Middle East could get back online. We also talked about how the dialup numbers were disseminated and a tool that was written to automate the process later. The use of DNS hijacking to warn people that they were under surveillance was briefly touched on. The concerted effort to scan the Egyptian and Syrian networks to gather information was described as were the SSL anomalies some of us discovered entirely by accident. We also talked about the discovery of Bluecoat DPI hardware installed by the Syrian government. Some agents of Telecomix went so far as to trace the serial numbers and bills of sale for the Bluecoat devices through a number of countries in Europe and the Middle East to Syria (which has been under US embargo since 1985, incidentally). We also announced Project Blue Cabinet, a name-and-shame of surveillance companies on stage at HOPE 9.

We talked briefly about training dissidents around the world online and offline in operational security, Tor, GPG, and the use of insecure proxy servers to get around online censorship. We also set up a project in which we mirrored videos and photographs taken during and after military attacks against civilians; interestingly, we started getting takedown requests that came from Egypt and Syria, which Project Streisand summarily ignored. We were mobbed with questions afterward both on stage and off, and they kept all of us busy for the rest oft he weekend. We also gave out an unknown but triple digit number of Telecomix stickers afterward (we buy them in bulk, you see) and for the rest of the weekend saw them popping up in the weirdest of places. Also, although Agent Cameron was unable to attend HOPE 9 she did record a message which was shown to the audience. Here it is.

Late on Friday night the Byzantium core team attended the Geeks Without Bounds presentation and were introduced by a fellow jellyfish to the founders of the organization. A business lunch was arranged for the next day, and in the process we met a potential new developer for Project Byzantium and a group of people who do relief work in Haiti. After some intense discussion we determined that our use cases and intents seem to overlap and we think that we can help one another in our respective missions. Business cards were exchanged and PGP key signatures were verified later.

I didn't sleep terribly well all through HOPE - between the heat, humidity, and lack of space in the room I woke up every hour or so dripping with sweat. I'd very much not like to stay there again unless I absolutely need to do so. Still, the mornings weren't too bad, what with everyone taking turns getting coffee from the tiny cafe' downstairs. If they get your order right it's not a half-bad cafe. After getting up and hauling our stuff back down to the mezzanine to set up the HacDC table we fielded a bunch of questions about Telecomix and otherwise, and then went to lunch with the Geeks Without Bounds crew. I was only parenthetically part of the conversation as I mostly spoke to the other folks at the luncheon meeting. A good deed was done on our way back to HOPE. I don't know the exact outcome but we did what we could. I suppose that's all anyone can say at the end of the day. The rest of Saturday afternoon was spent at the HacDC table being official and preparing for the second presentation on Saturday night.

We took the stage in the Sassaman room on Saturday night with the latest revision of our presentation on Sitwon's laptop and knocked it out of the park under the glare of the stagelights (which make it mercifully difficult to see the audience, might I add). We've given our presentation enough times that a minimum of practice was required so everything went smoothly. We also announced the latest release of Byzantium Linux on stage at HOPE Number Nine to an applauding audience. There was just enough time to field questions after we were done and then announce our hands-on workshop in the hackerspace village immediately afterward. I got trapped in the sargasso of elevators between picking up Dragonfly and the other box of CDs in our room and rejoining the HacDC crew. It's interesting that in a hotel full of hackers (with all of the associated mischief one would expect) the massive crush of people all weekend wreaked more havoc with the hotel's elevators than the people one would expect to cause any trouble. I'm sorry to say that we didn't keep track of the number of Byzantium CDs that we gave out at HOPE, we were also too busy installing it to USB keys for people whose computers don't have optical disk drives, answering questions, and troubleshooting to count the number of nodes in the mesh that was built that night. We estimate between 30 and 50 nodes on the Mezzanine that night and an unknown number of others outside of the hackerspace village. We also expect several dozen new bug tickets in the next few days as people run Byzantium Linux on laptops that aren't ours and find broken things.

I ducked out for a late dinner on Saturday night around 2300 and came back in time to rejoin the workshop for another couple of hours so Sitwon and Haxwithaxe could take a break. I also briefly attended the Geek Dance (named after the Ghost Dance), a live chiptune concert held on the bottom floor of the hotel and danced at the first rave thrown at HOPE in many years. Sound was done for the rave by DJ Space Catastrophe and DJ A.D.D., and believe me they got many a hacker cutting a rug that night. I am told by normally reliable sources that there may be a Youtube video in my future. Please note that it will be a cognitive hazard and proper precautions should be taken if encountered.

Sunday morning brought with it exhaustion, a few cups of coffee, and the final day of HOPE Number Nine. Once again, the HacDC table fielded a great deal of questions, and lots of stickers and CD-ROMs were given out. I missed a few things going on around the con but got into some fairly low-level trouble of my own. In particular shenanagains with .ronin - he wanted to try Byzantium Linux with Vera-NG and I wanted to fire some RF through Vera all weekend. So, after some swapping of cables and hasty recabling Dragonfly was connected to Vera and a Byzantium key was booted. Immediately three of the four wi-fi interfaces came online through the control panel. None of the electronic warfare devices were usable because Byzantium isn't designed for that sort of thing (though Backtrack is) and as such doesn't include any of the drivers or software. Completely forgetting the rolled up silicone rubber keyboard in my backpack, some configuration information was captured to a USB key for later analysis (which I have to remember to do) with the micro-miniature keyboard. After R0nin pointed out that there was an FM transmitter incorporated into Vera-NG, we discovered that we have suspiciously similar senses of humor... not quite a million watts of love hit the airwaves that day but certainly about 14 were transmitted.

The HacDC team decided to have one last dinner in New York before packing up and heading for home. Much to my chagrin I discovered that the Hotel Pennsylvania's luggage check was locked up and talked the bell captain into letting me in pick up my suitcase. Immediately after that I got lost while looking for the bus pickup. The Boltbus wasn't waiting at a bus terminal but instead a line of people on the sidewalk waiting to board marked the pickup. Then it started to rain. The rest of the trip was pretty much a disaster; on the way up the power was dodgy, but on the way back the air conditioning and much of the power cut out completely. We don't know what the temperature was but everybody tried to move as little as possible and dripped sweat the whole time. At some point that night Redbeard talked the bus driver into hitting a rest stop so everybody could get out and recuperate. The four of us from HacDC passed the hat and as soon as the doors of the bus opened we cleaned out the rest stop's cold case in buying water for everyone on the bus. Then the damned bus didn't start, in all probability due to the damaged electrical system. Once again we got everybody off the bus and made sure that people got what they needed. One woman was recovering from surgery, so we talked the bus driver into opening the cargo compartment so we could get her folding chair. The rest of the night was spent killing time with my hand-held ham radio. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make any contacts; nobody was hanging out on any local repeaters around 0300 EST5EDT. Either it was too late at night or I need to practice configuring my radio a bit more.

In one of those amazing coincidences that follow me around sometimes a rather noteworthy motor vehicle happened to stop at the same rest stop that we were stranded at. While there wasn't much that they could do (none of us being mechanics and only a few of us hackers) it's good to spend time with fellow travelers when there is little else to do but wait. When one kills time, a wise man once said, one injures eternity. So, that is what we did until Sitwon's mother picked us up in her van around 0-dark-30 - by that time I'd stopped keeping track of when it was, only what was going on. I fell asleep at one point, in the process dropping my new cellphone on the floor to be forgotten in our early morning haze. Thankfully they found it later that day and now my primary means of communication (because Windbringer, while a close friend and useful tool is a bit too cumbersome for most forms of rapid communication, and I don't have a landline at home to place telephone calls) is back in my pocket and on my desk.

And now a bit about the con overall... hacker conventions, as a general rule should not require stillsuits to function normally. It was way too hot for comfort last weekend, and thus difficult to stay properly hydrated. Living in Washington, DC as I do, I realize that I don't have a whole lot of room to complain about this, but I'm going to make use of the room that I do have. Also, due to the heat, dehydration, and more talking than I am ordinarily accustomed to I seem to have stripped my vocal chords and am doing a fair to middling John Lear impersonation. Large quantities of water, lemon juice, and an awesome throat spray that Hasufin found at the store on Tuesday are rapidly restoring my ability to speak, though I won't be doing a whole lot of singing soon. The hackerspace village wasn't jam-packed with hackerspaces per se this time 'round, but those in attendence were running workshops and activities pretty much round the clock. There weren't many art exhibits on display, which sort of makes me wish that I'd implemented one or two of my crazy ideas (in my copious spare time, of course). The con was also rather too loud for my tastes - between all of the people talking, the odd announcement from the con staff (which was all but indiscernable, as one would expect of the airport security theater-like theme of the conference), and the music playing non-stop it was very difficult to make out the words of single people. This also mean speaking much more loudly than normal to make oneself heard (which certainly contributed to my laryngitis).

In other news, we're working on getting the latest release of Byzantium Linux (v0.2a) online for download, and are shooting for the end of this week to make the official announcement. We're having some problems with one of the torrents and a mirror server (the former isn't showing up in any of our BitTorrent clients, the latter is a matter of access) but I expect that we'll officially release the .iso image by the end of this week. Special thanks to everyone who's pre-seeding torrents for us to make the downloads faster. Also, we're already getting bug reports for the HOPE9 release, new additions to the HCL, and even a slew of patches that will be incorporated into the next release.

I'm still rather tired and catching up at work; to wit, I'm taking a two week vacation from hacking code to rest and reconnect with family and friends. It's been a long, hard ride to this release and I think we've earned a little R&R. However, we also need to ride with the wave of attention that we're getting from the community, so there's a little bit of delay between posts to the mailing list, new tickets, and our acknowledging them, so please be patient. We're around and we'll be around shortly.

By the way, if there are any talks that you'd like to see but can't find on Youtube, DVD rips are slowly trickling in at Hat Torrents, an open BitTorrent tracker exclusively for videos from hacker cons. There are also some livestream recordings archived at ustream.tv, in particular Timcast's. You might also want to check HOPE wiki for updates.