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At This Camp, Kids Learn To Question Authority (And Hack It)

DefCon Kids camp co-founder Chris Hoff, with Conner Gilliam (from left), Conner Fine and Ethan Lai, work on a machine that draws designs on ping-pong balls. The camp is held in Las Vegas.
Steve Henn
DefCon Kids camp co-founder Chris Hoff, with Conner Gilliam (from left), Conner Fine and Ethan Lai, work on a machine that draws designs on ping-pong balls. The camp is held in Las Vegas.

Some kids go to band camp; others go to swim camp. But for the children of the world's digital rabble-rousers, there is hacking camp. It's called DefCon Kids.

This camp, held in Las Vegas, encourages kids to take a hard, skeptical look at the machines that surround them, and teaches them to hack apart everything they can lay their hands on.

One of the most popular activities is lock-picking.

"I had fun with some of the harder locks," says 16-year-old Alaetheia Garrison Stuber.

But did she learn any new tricks?

"Um, not really. I got to open up a six pin," she says, with a grin.

Alaetheia, who is sporting a cape, could probably break into a house.

Not every parent would send their kid to camp to learn lock-picking, but Alaetheia's dad, Michael Garrison Stuber, is standing behind her, beaming with pride.

Other hackers here say that lock-picking is both a hobby and a metaphor for what they do. If you teach yourself to pick locks, at some point you face a choice: You can either become a thief or a locksmith.

So, why does Michael Garrison Stuber want his daughter to learn these skills?

"Why would I do this?" he asks, while laughing. "Fundamentally the world is about systems. And we work within systems all the time, but sometimes systems are broken, and we need to be able to subvert them. And that is a life skill I absolutely want her to be able to have."

DefCon Kids grew out of the hack conference DefCon, the largest, most important gathering of computer hackers on the planet. Thousands flock to the conference to compete in computerized challenges and puzzles.

The talks — on everything from airline security to how to hack nuclear facilities — can strike fear into the hearts of the uninitiated.

But organizers say their intent is to make the world safer and more transparent by testing the technologies we depend on.

And now they are trying to teach kids to do the same thing.

Like many parents, Michael Garrison Stuber has put restrictions on his daughter's Internet use. He installed a firewall that won't permit her to log on except during certain times of day, but he added a twist: When Alaetheia figures out how to break through his firewall, those rules and restrictions will no longer apply. If Alaetheia can pick the digital lock her father built, she will have earned the right to decide for herself how much time she spends online.

And so at DefCon Kids, Alaetheia seeks out adult hackers for help.

"These guys learn something new every time they come," says Chris Hoff, the camp's co-founder. "Every day they are here, they learn about electronics, they learn about privacy, how law enforcement works. They learn about social engineering."

Hoff, who is covered in tattoos, is a hacker with a high-powered job in Silicon Valley. He started this camp with his own kids in mind.

And unlike most technology camps that have sprung up around the country, DefCon Kids is as much about questioning authority as taking apart computers.

Hoff wants his own kids — all kids — to ask more questions.

"Every time you see an end-user license agreement on a screen, you just hit accept," he says. "You don't know what it means, what you are giving away, what you are doing."

The camp's goal is to teach kids how the technologies and systems that surround them work.

Hoff wants kids to think about it and figure out exactly what it means when they hit that button marked "accept."

"Right now what we say to kids is, your privacy is as precious as your virginity, and once you give it away you can never get it back," says Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and blogger.

This year, Doctorow gave a talk here entitled, "How To Hack Your School's Network."

Despite the provocative name, he wasn't really encouraging kids to break rules, break into computer networks and get expelled; instead, he argued that schools that monitor their students online while lecturing them about the dangers of Facebook are sending an insanely mixed message about privacy.

"You must guard it at every moment of the day and night, except when I am violating it — which is all the time," Doctorow says.

His speech focuses on organizing, pushing back and asking pointed questions to your principal. Doctorow uses the word "hack," in this case, to describe a social movement.

And for most of the folks at DefCon, hacking is a social movement.

Now that the teenagers that founded this conference 20 years ago have children of their own, many want to pass along their brand of "ethical" hacking to the next generation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.