OHM 2013

Posted on August 26, 2013

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All photographs courtesy of Christina Olson.

In September, I traveled to a campground north of Amsterdam to participate in OHM (Observe. Hack. Make.), a large gathering of hackers and makers. It was the latest in the sequence of Dutch hacker conferences that includes What the Hack and Hacking at Random.

OHM’s Like Burning Man…

On the surface, OHM seemed a lot like Burning Man: a temporary community dedicated to creating things and teaching others how to create things. Like Burning Man, OHM was organized into different camps or ‘villages.’ As with Burning Man, part of the joy of OHM was simply the ability to wander freely from village to village. At La Quadrature’s tent, I took a three-hour hands-on massage class that left me in a happy stupor. At the French Embassy, my friends and I played with a miniature robotic arm and goggled at a computer-aided milling machine. (They also had freshly baked bread, which was particularly in keeping with my expectations of the French.) There were circuit hacking tents, an ironwork/welding tent, a food hacking tent, and even a tent housing a comprehensive collection of old video game consoles. In addition to the community tents, there were large exhibition tents that collectively hosted about 100 different talks each day, with topics ranging from web security to hacker communities to molecular gastronomy.

While I was there, I found myself living life in a very unplanned fashion, which was similar to the way I experienced Burning Man. Although I camped with friends, it was hard to coordinate with them or agree to meet at a particular time. This was partly because we were interested in different events, but also because of an unspoken sense that OHM would best be enjoyed through spontaneous discovery. We each took our own journey through OHM, catching up once or twice a day in the central tent or “Lounge.”

While not quite to the level of Burning Man, the campground was particularly vibrant at night. Many villages put on lavish fog and light displays, regrettably accompanied by pulsating house music that seemed designed to prevent the formation of coherent thoughts. Glowing remote-controlled drones dipped and circled overhead. As at Burning Man, many campers stayed out all night, connecting over drinks, Club Mate, and various illicit substances. (Despite the omnipresent, throbbing beats, relatively few people seemed interested in dancing.) I was accosted by a representative of the Italian Embassy, who told me it was his job to offer a glass of grappa to every passerby. The grappa came from someone’s grandfather’s basement, and the Embassy was committed to consuming forty liters of it before the camp ended.

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…for Hackers (with a Dash of Capitalism).

One notable difference between OHM and the playa was the presence of capitalism. OHM had corporate sponsors ranging from Deloitte to the controversial Fox IT. Some of the talks were about technology being developed or funded by these sponsors, or by startups that were also in attendance. Occasionally it was hard to tell apart the regular talks from the marketing pitches.  In contrast to Burning Man’s “gift economy”, it was easy to buy food and other essentials at OHM. The central square hosted several restaurants, each specializing in a different cuisine, in addition to stores selling groceries and camping items. The same catering company operated all of the restaurants, with predictably mediocre results.

The other major difference, of course, was that OHM was truly a hacker-centric gathering, without the artists or modern-day hippies of the Burning Man community. I didn’t see a single polyester costume or feather boa the entire time I was there, and saw only one naked man. Electronic devices were welcomed, even viewed as essential. There was free, unsecured wifi, and the central tent had an abundance of power strips and small tables for computers. At any given time, half the attendees seemed to be on laptops or working on soldering, robotics, or welding projects.

Perhaps because of the high concentration of hackers, people generally seemed less friendly than at Burning Man. Sometimes I’d wander into a random tent and ask questions about what its occupants were hacking on. People seemed surprised that I was talking to them and would simply give me a one-line response instead of continuing the conversation. On the other hand, a couple of European friends told me that people at OHM seemed unusually friendly, so perhaps people’s introversion stemmed from northern European cultural norms rather than hacker diffidence. Eventually I did find several very outgoing communities, including the Food Hacking Tent, La Quadrature’s teashop, and the Italian Embassy.

What I Learned

OHM was my first real exposure to some fundamental concepts in web security, such as encryption, authentication, and deniability. Most of the talks went over my head, but I enjoyed them all the same. At Peter Eckersley’s ‘Encrypting the Web’ talk , I learned about man-in-the-middle attacks and the flawed marketplace for certificate authorities (CAs). According to Peter, paying more for a certificate authority doesn’t guarantee more thorough validation – “regardless of what you pay for, you get every restaurant’s food mixed together.” Peter also talked about the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s HTTPS Everywhere project, which allows you to encrypt your communications with many major websites. At a talk given by the Use OTR Project, I was surprised to hear that OTR messaging was utterly different from Google’s “off the record” chat setting. OTR, as it turns out, is a way of sending encrypted messages via chat, while Google’s “off the record” setting just prevents Google from saving specific chats.

Although it was far too advanced for me, I really enjoyed a talk on SIM card exploitation by Karsten Nohl. He demonstrated how to root a SIM card by exploiting the weak DES encryption that the card uses for over-the-air (OTA) messages to its mobile service provider.

I also went to a fun talk on the history of cybersecurity. It turns out that governments have been intercepting private communications for centuries. One fascinating example is the Congress of Vienna, a two-year-long gathering of European ambassadors after Napoleon’s fall from power. When they weren’t discussing the future of Europe, the diplomats would socialize at the Austrian embassy, which held parties every evening. While the diplomats were away from their desks, Austrian cleaning ladies would unseal, copy, and replace their letters, or so the story goes.

Some recordings of OHM talks are available here.

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