LAS VEGAS (CNNMoney) — Wearing a t-shirt and jeans, America’s top spymaster — National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, also the head of the U.S. Cyber Command — took the stage Friday at the nation’s largest hacker convention to deliver a recruiting pitch.
“In this room, this room right here, is the talent our nation needs to secure cyberspace,” Alexander told the standing-room-only audience at DefCon, a grassroots gathering in Las Vegas expected to draw a record 16,000 attendees this year. “We need great talent. We don’t pay as high as everybody else, but we’re fun to be around.”
Alexander’s appearance is a milestone for DefCon, a hacker mecca with an often-uneasy relationship with the feds. DefCon is the older, wilder and far less official sibling of BlackHat, a cybersecurity conference that wrapped up Thursday in Las Vegas.
BlackHat draws corporate infosecurity workers in suits. At DefCon, they switch to t-shirts and spend the weekend mingling with cryptographers, script kiddies, security researchers and a liberal smattering of military and law enforcement agents — both in and out of uniform.
DefCon is famed as an elite hacking showcase. The registration badges alone are a technical feat, featuring a customizable circuit board and cryptographic scavenger-hunt puzzle. A hacker group called Ninja Networks set up a private cellular network to chat on during the show — a stunt that drew admiring praise from Alexander during his talk.
Those are the kinds of skills the government needs, he said. Playing to his audience, Alexander rattled off a long list of tech-industry stars like Vint Cerf and Dave Aitel who did pioneering work on the federal payroll.
“We’re the ones who built this Internet,” Alexander said, citing the key role agencies like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) played in the network’s early days. “Now we’re the ones who have to keep it secure, and I think you folks can help do that.”