Nick Percoco ushers us inside, and we are issued blinking electronic badges.
The badges are basically mini-computers that transmit and receive messages between attendees. When they come in contact with other attendee badges, they pick up information that is transmitted back and forth and respond by blinking in a pattern or different light sequences.
The room is filled with hackers, security experts and amateur techies yearning to be hackers. We are at THOTCON, a 6-year-old hacking conference attended by more than 1,000 people from all over the country.
The conference is held at an undisclosed location in Chicago. NBC5 is the only TV crew ever allowed to attend the ultra-top secret event.
“They’re interested in information security, they’re in hacking, they’re interested in technology,” said Nick Percoco, a THOTCON organizer, of the conference's attendees. “That’s why everyone comes together once a year for this event.”
The conference caters to security researchers, hackers and the curious who want to learn about cutting-edge security issues.
Not only do our badges blink, but they are hackable when plugged in to a computer. If you can solve the badge puzzle, you win a gold lifetime badge that allows you to return to THOTCON forever for free.
We are told the majority of the hackers are the good, white hat hackers, people who work in technology security.
Computer developer John Gates said he develops e-commerce systems for credit card information. “I just like to stay on top of the hacker space and find out how people are infiltrating systems so I can better program mine," Gates said.
Scott Ortell said he works in the security industry. “Every year the stuff I see coming up I have to protect my clients against. It’s kind of a view into the future and what we could be facing. The positive and negative.”
The conference features so-called turbo talks that range from medical device security to credit card skimming and wireless drone strikes.
"One of the things we do here is showing how easy it is for someone to take a credit card and copy it and write it to a blank card,” said speaker Matt Jakubowski. “We’re definitely showing them how not to become a victim and showing them how easy it is to become a victim.”
The conference isn’t all about turbo talks. There’s also a "village" where you can grab a beer, lock-pick handcuffs and even bring your kids for some hands-on hacking.
“We are trying to teach kids the basics of science and technology. More over to get them curious about technology," said Sherman Chong of HaK 4 kidz. “Some of the programs that we’re running during the conference are a lock picking village, a robotic building village, a drone flying village, and an electric circuit building village.”
For THOTCON newbies, like Akshada Pol, the whole experience can be daunting.
“I’m here and looking at all the presentations. It’s kinda exciting,” Pol said. “I’m still learning, I wouldn’t call myself a hacker.”
At least not yet.