By Naomi Graychase
July 27, 2004
This week’s DefCon 2004 brings a new WiFi Shootout contest that hopes to break last year’s distance of 35.2 miles, achieved with an antenna built from parts bought at a Home Depot.
This week, somewhere deep in the deserts of Las Vegas, a gang of wireless hackers will test their mettle in geekdom’s version of extreme sports — the second Annual DefCon Wi-Fi Shootout. The contest will take place as part of DefCon, a conference in its twelfth year that bills itself as “the largest underground hacking event in the world.”
Carefully orchestrated by a character who calls himself Dark Tangent and his squad of “Goons,” DefCon will take place this year at the Alexis Park Resort in Las Vegas. Eighty bucks in cash will get you an official pass and access to the vendors, speakers, contests and other events that will fill the hackers’ days and nights from July 30 to August 1.
Federal agents surveiling the event are invited to bring along mugs, t-shirts or other paraphernalia from their field offices to trade with Dark Tangent once they’ve been fingered by an attendee in an ongoing contest dubbed, “Spot the Fed.”
The WiFi Shootout commences at an undisclosed location somewhere far from civilization on Friday, July 30th at noon — or, as contest organizers prefer to call it, “1200 hours” — and will end at 6:00 p.m. Saturday. The goal is to achieve the greatest possible connect distance between two 802.11b stations “through innovative engineering and antenna design.” Everyone attending the conference is eligible to compete in teams of two or more.
The contest is divided into four categories: Commercial, Homebrew, Enhanced Power Commercial, and Enhanced Power Homebrew. Teams in the Commercial category will use stock/modified commercial gear and two commercial antennae. The Homebrew teams will employ home-made wireless gear, with the exception of one antenna, which can be commercially available. The Enhanced Power divisions have the same requirements as their corresponding categories, but obviously with amplified power.
Many of last year’s contestants sat in a two-hour traffic jam before arriving at the windy base camp, 4,650 feet above sea level. They transported their own portable power sources, and then attempted to shoot their signals as far as they could down the Great Basin Highway toward another mountain range approximately 40 miles away. Competitors displayed impressive MacGyver-like skills, concocting devices out of everything from Pringles cans to cardboard, duct tape and aluminum foil.
According to Dark Tangent, the Guinness Book of World Records lists the farthest distance for a Wi-Fi link at 310 km, or roughly 192 miles. The Wi-Fi Shootout contest organizers are hoping that this year, that record might be challenged.
Last year’s winners reached confirmed distances ranging from 5.1061 miles — which was reached using a laptop with a 30mW Lucent Orinoco card, and a home-built directional “cantenna” made from two Hormel Chili cans — and 35.2196 miles, which was reached by the Grand Prize winning team named ASL Rulz. The team used a unique antenna, which was built completely from scratch in the desert using $98 in materials purchased the day before at a local Home Depot.
In addition to the engineering element of the contest, there is a physical component as well. Participants are warned that the nearest bathroom facility could be a 30-mile hike away, and the location is intentionally isolated and exposed to whatever weather the desert decides to unleash that day. Last year’s contestants were subjected to rain, wind, dust and blistering heat.
This year’s Shootout contest has been pulled together by last year’s organizer, Dave Moore, and last year’s Grand Prize winning team, ASLRulz, who will certify all winning distances this year.
Prizes for this year’s event have not been announced, but the first fifty to register get a t-shirt, and last year, prizes included $500 gift certificates to Best Buy or Circuit City, and coveted Pass Badges to next year’s DefCon.
The Wi-Fi Shootout is just one of many ways in which the hackers who attend DefCon can flex their muscles. Other sports include: Lockpick, in which only manual tools can be used by the 72 contestants in their race to quickly pick locks; The DefCon Scavenger Hunt, where contestants have to collect items such as a cow’s head, candles shaped like penises, and uranium; and Dunk the Geek, a philanthropic endeavor which will take place in the pool.
After a long day spent dunking geeks, spotting feds and climbing mountains in order to build antennae out of chicken wire, DefCon goers can also attend a Black and White ball, kick back in front of the DefCon Movie Channel, or listen to a plethora of talks on subjects ranging from “Frustrating OS Fingerprinting with Morph” to “The First International Cyber War: Computer Networks as a Battleground in the Middle East and Beyond.” And while the Wi-Fi Shootout is no Tour De France, on August 1 there will be several very satisfied teams of hackers raising their duct tape or chili cans in victory salutes above the sands of Las Vegas.