Reporter's Notebook: No Chaos at Chaos Congress

While the rest of Germany relaxed and celebrated the holidays, 1,400 members of the hacking community got down to business as Hamburg's Chaos Computer Club held its 16th annual Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin last week.

But it wasn't computer business as usual -- more like a strange mix between Comdex and a concert by industrial music band KMFDM. In a gray convention center in Berlin, CCC's annual congress started off in the mornings with the light sounds of trance music over the public address system, closing up in the evenings with some of the crowd wandering out and many others sitting awake until the wee hours of the morning, kept up by a diet of Jolt ("America's Intensive Cola!") and beer.

In a turnabout, not only did the press have to pay to cover the event, but journalists had to pay more than the attendees -- and I still felt guilty for waking up the six people sleeping in the "press room" by opening the door at 10 o'clock one morning.

On arrival, I found the congress to be extremely well organized, considering the unreliability I had experienced on the Web site in the weeks leading up to the event.

One disconcerting aspect of the event for non-German speakers was that nobody could tell you which language a session would be in until the speaker started speaking. In a couple of cases, I swear the speaker asked (in German) if anyone spoke English. Since I didn't immediately understand the question, I couldn't reply. I ended up sitting through more than a couple of lectures delivered completely in German, only to ask the speaker afterwards to briefly recap in English what he had just spent the last two hours and 30 slides talking about.

The sessions encompassed a wide variety of topics, ranging from the top-secret surveillance system Echelon, to Java encryption. [See, "CHAOS CONGRESS:

Echelon: The Skies Have Ears," 12/29/1999.] In a fitting juxtaposition, there was a convention of German lockpickers occupying two of the rooms upstairs.

The convention building also had very strict press rules. Nothing about us sleeping on the floor, mind you, but more in the line of "no photos or sound recordings without explicit permission." In short, leave us alone and we'll let you come.

There was also a "hacking center" in the building, a split level section, with nothing but people sitting at computers, surfing the Web or hacking away on the dedicated LAN in the building. One night I saw someone watching the Bruce Willis movie, "Die Hard," on a DVD on their computer.

Although I was met with ugly stares and people who suddenly didn't speak English when I approached, I did manage to get a chance to talk to Frank Rieger, a CCC member, after a waiting period when he found out that someone had hacked the Web page of the German Policeman's Union with a pro-CCC message.

"The congress this year is more focused on learning than it has been on the past, not on big announcements for the public," he said. "We are more focused on payment systems, biometric security, and how things work now. Internet security has become too commercial," he added.

Rieger also told me that because the congress was only advertised on the Internet this year, it attracted a much more desirable crowd. Also, the number of journalists was down from over 100 last year, to under 30 this year.

(Although I only saw four other people at the press briefing on the night before it started.)According to Rieger, this decrease in journalists was not a bad thing.

"Journalists don't understand the photography rules," he said. "If there's something someone wants to tell a journalist, they will go to a journalist," he added.

More information can be found on the Web at http://www.ccc.de/congress.

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