I Was Harassed at DEF CON 2014

I attended the hacking and security conference DEF CON 2014 in Las Vegas last week, covering the event for Tom’s Guide. I had a great time and learned a lot, but I did have one very uncomfortable experience with a single attendee. I wrote up the account right after it happened, and I’m posting it here now. 

At 2:50 Las Vegas time last Saturday (August 9), I was sitting on the floor just outside the DEFCON Café. I was supposed to meet an interviewee at 3pm. In the few minutes I had to myself before that, I was working on an article.

Then I heard someone to my right say something about a photo.

I looked up. A man in his mid-to-late twenties was sitting along the wall to my right. Between us was the sign marking the entrance to the café, but as we were both sitting the actual sign part was above both our heads, so I had a clear view of him (and he of me). He had a cell phone in one hand and a beer in the other.

“Did you just take a picture of me?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Wanna see?”

“Uh…”

Without waiting for my answer he got up and moved over to sit right next to me on my left side. Then he held up his cell phone and showed me the picture.

“This is the best picture I’ve taken at DEFCON!” he said.

It was a picture of me working at my computer. One of the legs of the café sign covered part of my face, but a profile of my body was visible, as was my computer screen. It wasn’t a particularly wonderful picture. But it was definitely me. I stared at the guy who took it.

“Are you familiar with Reddit?” he asked.

Hoo boy.

“Yes, I am.”

He said he wanted to post it to Reddit. I think he said r/cyber (which, as I learned just now while writing this, is a cybersex subreddit. But r/cyber hasn’t been updated in 10 months, so maybe he said something else).  I hesitated, then asked if I could take a closer look at the picture. He let me pluck the phone from his hand and zoom in.

Well, my facial features were mostly blocked out by the sign post, and the picture was blurry enough that you couldn’t see what I was working on. So, curtly, I said he could post it. After all, what could I do? I knew he was probably allowed to take pictures of people in public.  I also handed him my business card (which I should NOT have done, in retrospect, but I was trying to add some kind of professionalism to this whole alarming situation).

“But you know,” I added, “You shouldn’t take pictures of people without their permission.”

All of a sudden his false friendliness vanished. “I don’t give a fuck what you think. I can do whatever the fuck I want.”

Ahhhh, there it is. Clearly, he was intending to post the picture whether I gave my permission or not.

I stood up. “That’s great. Well, I’m waiting for someone, so if you could…”

“Fuck off?” he finished for me.

“Well I wasn’t going to say that, because unlike you I do give a fuck. But yeah.”

He didn’t move. Just sat there contemplating my business card. I contemplated plucking it out of his hand and running. But I also said I’d meet someone outside the café, and I also wasn’t sure if I should ask this guy if I could take his photo too, just in case. And not because it would be a “great photo,” but for my own security.

After a few seconds he said “Can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask me another one,” I said. Wow, so witty.  Good one, Jill. Way to take back control of the situation.

“Can I ask you two questions?” he amended.

“Sure,” I said.

But then he didn’t actually ask a question. He just took out a black bandana from his pocket and, tying it around his face, explained that this was how he stopped people from taking unwanted pictures of him.

Cool tip, bro.

Then he asked if I was a marketer. (SIDEBAR: If you are a woman at a tech show, many people assume you’re in marketing. This had never happened to me before personally but I know women who have been asked this.)

“No, I’m a journalist.”

“And your company sent you out here to cover this?”

“Yes.”

“They paid for you to come out here?”

“Yes.”

Then he told me that he is “old-school DEFCON,” and “old-school DEFCON” always “fuck with the press.”

At this point I saw the person I was waiting for across the hallway. I told this guy I was leaving, and I grabbed my business card off the floor by his feet. He muttered something about how he already knew the information on it. Then I left.

Why didn’t I take a photo of him back? I should have. I even thought of it while it was happening. But I didn’t do it, didn’t even ask—because I didn’t want to impose.

I won’t worry about it next time.

I finished my interview, then all but ran back up to my hotel room. Once I was calm again, I went back downstairs to the conference and found DEF CON security. I told them what had happened—that I had originally given reluctant permission but had expressed my displeasure, that he had started swearing at me. I told them I understood that, as I had been in a sort-of public place and had originally given consent for the photo to be posted, security probably wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The head of security shook his head. He said that “where he crossed the line” was when he got verbally aggressive with me.

Then I told them about the guy’s “old-school DEF CON” comment. The head of security’s serious expression hardened.

He said he’d been doing DEF CON for 17 years, so if anyone was “old-school,” he was. And there may have been tensions between DEF CON folks and press, but they never tolerated harassment.

The security folks then asked me to describe the guy, which I did. Every member of security I talked to was extremely kind and supportive, and very clear that verbal harassment wasn’t tolerated at DEF CON. They didn’t end up finding the guy who did this (and I haven’t been able to find the picture online anywhere so far) but talking to security made me feel much better. So thank you, DEF CON security!

Overall my experience at DEF CON was great. I had a good time and I learned a lot. But I know harassment has been an issue at DEF CON previously, some much worse than I was, so I wanted to share my experience too.

 

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