33C3: Works for Me

The Chaos Communication Congress (CCC) is the largest German hacker convention by a wide margin, and it’s now in its thirty-third year, hence 33C3. The Congress is a techno-utopian-anarchist-rave with a social conscience and a strong underpinning of straight-up hacking. In short, there’s something for everyone, and that’s partly because a CCC is like a hacker Rorschach test: everyone brings what they want to the CCC, figuratively and literally. Somehow the contributions of 12,000 people all hang together, more or less. The first “C” does stand for chaos, after all.

What brings these disparate types to Hamburg are the intersections in the Venn diagrams. Social activists who may actually be subject to state surveillance are just as interested in secure messaging as the paranoid security geek or the hardcore crypto nerd who’s just in it for the algorithms. Technology, and how we use it to communicate and organize society, is a pretty broad topic. Blinking lights also seem to be in the intersection. But on top of that, we are all geeks. There’s a lot of skill, smarts, and know-how here, and geeks like sharing, teaching, and showing off their crazy creations.

Talks and Sessions

The Sessions Schedule (and Commemorative Mate Bottle)
The Sessions Schedule (and Commemorative Mate Bottle)

Ignoring the straight-up hacking at a CCC would be a mistake — there’s no shortage of talks where serious technical skills overcome silicon limitations to get their code running on the machine. Reverse engineering, making encryption, breaking encryption, or securing systems. We’ve covered a few talks, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. As we write this, we’re being forced to choose between attending a talk on one of our favorite open-source reverse-engineering tools, a talk on big data and privacy, and a talk about testing pseudo-random number generators. We’re working on writing up the rest of the standouts, but it’s going to take us a while to catch up.

At the same time as the formal talks, there are autonomous sessions and workshops taking place in many smaller rooms throughout the convention center. We’re missing a talk on numerical weather prediction right now. You just can’t catch them all. And while the CCC crew does a great job of getting all the main tracks up and online within minutes of the end of each talk, the sessions and workshops remain invisible unless you’re here.

Assemblies and Games

Yes, the talks and sessions are (less than?) half of the show. The “chaos” is the thing. Other conventions have hackerspace villages or special-interest areas, the CCC has “assemblies”. And it has them in spades. Four big halls are filled with tables, 3D printers, laser cutters, small robots, blinking things, and other random projects. The assemblies are also a big show and tell that makes most Maker Faires jealous.

Hackerspaces from Germany, and also from all over Europe, are here. Other assemblies aren’t based on physical location — there’s a LISP assembly and an FPGA assembly for instance. The assemblies provide a mini-base for the hackerspace groups, most of whom have been here since the day before the Congress officially opened, setting their stuff up.

There is No Game

Running throughout the 33C3 was a game, called “There is No Game”. Keeping in the spirit of the chaos, the game that isn’t a game is really a series of challenges, riddles, and secret meetings with other teams. Terminals are scattered around the Congress, and teams are issued a USB stick that they insert and receive an envelope each day.

Unlike other crypto challenges or badge games, there’s absolutely no way to “win” this game — there is no game, after all. Instead, the teams all need to get together to solve a big puzzle that unlocks secret rooms, light and music shows, and even a couple of parties.

I walked in on a Mad Hatter-themed event, where all the teams had collected items that the hatter needed to go with his tea. I got sucked in, and spent the evening helping a group from the Munich CCC to shoot a balloon using a servo-driven turret guided by OpenCV. Other groups had to decrypt Iridium pager messages, crack codes, and build stuff. There’s a Doctor Who thread running through the whole game that I really don’t yet understand.

The end result of the game, though, is community building. Connecting puzzle pieces, collecting the information that unlocks strange secret events, and just trying to figure it all out is more than any group could possibly do. It provides a great excuse to run around with a group of people, visit other assemblies, and work with them on their challenges.

Angels and Heaven

Of course, it’s not all chaos. There’s a tremendous army of volunteer “angels” who run everything from the phenomenal networking to the GSM and wireless telephone systems, wrangle the press, translate the talks and interview the guests, and basically do all of the hard work that makes everything flow. No other hacker convention that I know of has preview versions of the talks up and streaming within fifteen minutes of the end of the talk, all multiplexed from a few camera angles and subtitled in German, English, and French. Data flowing out of the CCC peaked around 8-10 GB/s. The infrastructure that gets built up just for the event is epic.

This year there were more volunteers to angel than there was actually need, and that’s a lot; 2,564 angels worked the Congress. What do they get out of it? They know that they made the whole thing work, they get fed, and they get early access to next year’s tickets. Those who angel for enough hours get a T-shirt. And all of them get our thanks for keeping the chaos from devolving into utter chaos.

The CCC Community: Works for Me

500px-33c3-logoThe motto of this year’s congress is “Works for Me” — meant ironically. The idea is to get you to think: does a system (computer or otherwise) that only works for some people really work? Is “works for me” good enough? Or should we be trying to make what we make work for everyone? It’s at least a good question to bring with you throughout the next year.

dscf9151What really stands out about the CCC, at least from an American perspective, is the presence of women and children. Let’s face it, US hacker conventions are not family friendly, and some of them can be downright unwelcoming to women. One of the many mottos (chaos, remember?) of the CCC is “All Lifeforms Welcome.” (Although the conference center doesn’t allow people to bring their pets, so it’s probably more like “all humans”.)

Chaos Mentors Take Animal-Head Selfies
Chaos Mentors Take Animal-Head Selfies

Bringing interested outsiders into the community is a very active goal of the CCC organization. I met with [Fiona Krakenbürger] of the “Chaos Mentors”, an assembly that aims to make the introduction to the CCC easier for first-timers and anyone else who’s feeling intimidated by the whole scene. (Intimidation is a totally reasonable reaction — it’s easy to get lost in the building, and there’s just so much everything going on that it presents a real sensory overload.) They take new people in small groups, orient them up, give them a place to call home, and then eventually let them fly free. For people who don’t come here with their own local hackerspace, it’s an invaluable service to create these little micro-communities. It’s telling that around a quarter of the mentors were newbies at last year’s conference.

As I write this, a toddler just wandered past a group of folks sitting on the floor talking about making commits to the Tails GitHub. The human-sized snowglobe, that serves as a haze-filled, laser-lit, all night disco, is currently filled with kindergarteners playing with mylar confetti and brooms. People are here with their significant others. Half of the third floor is dedicated to LEGOs, ball pits, and a race track for the archetypical German ride-on kids toy, the “Bobby Car”. It’s hard to tell if the various games that are scattered around (home-made DDS, video-overlayed ping-pong table) are aimed at children above or below the age of 30.

Hacker Utopia

In the end, the CCC is a four-day long expression of what the German hacker community wants the world to look like: fun, freaky, and brainy, with enough stuff going on to satisfy anyone’s deep interests or short attention span. It’s also great to have the chance to say thanks in person to the people who make or maintain software that you use, buying them a real beer instead of a virtual one. It’s a good thing to take a week off to play, plan, and party. But it’s also a reminder that we can work to remake the rest of the world in little ways during the other 51 weeks of the year.

20 thoughts on “33C3: Works for Me

  1. Good luck getting a Ticket. The CCC in unable to size their congress to the demand of the society. The Tickets were sold out in minutes and there is no chance. The CCC is keeping half of the tickets for their elite members. They are not like to talk about this. One of them (Tim Pritlove) was giving out a 4-Days Ticket on Twitter the other day. ONLY if you are a girl. They are kinda self centered. The Podcast “Aufwachen” tried to get a slot for one of their shows. They didnt got in. Funny thing: 2-3 episodes prior, they were criticizing Linus Neumann for his crude worldview. Ein Schelm wer böses denkt. The CCC is not as great as people thing he is when it comes to communication with their peers.

    1. I don’t know how you expect them to fix this? There’s limited capacity and *everyone* wants in. Also, it’s a REALLY shitty criticism going for the “elite” tag. Everyone at the congress, including those actually running the thing, have to pay for a ticket. They’re not “elite”, they’re the people making the thing that you are *so* desperate to get into. Why not just write CCC in marker on a box and sit inside it? That’s effectively what you’ll get if you want to kick out the infrastructure people just so you can get in.

      1. I couldn’t have said that any better. I was there and it was amazing but the congress center has a limited capacity. those you call “elite” (people who received a voucher) either helped to make the event happen during the last year or are members of hackerspaces all around the globe. All of them had to pay the same price for their tickets (and it wasn’t that hard to get them. I got quite a few additional tickets for friends who didn’t have time to buy them theirself without any problems).

        1. And they are working to expand as fast as reasonably possible. It was only a few years ago that the CCC left Berlin b/c the convention hall there only fit 4,000 people. To be capping out at 12,000 (limit imposed by size of the new venue) five years later was pretty much unthinkable — they were scared about what would happen with a giant empty hall when they moved.

          Nobody knows yet if the next location is going to be bigger or not yet. The Orga is debating two options when I last heard — one keeps the limit about the same size so that it will fit back into the Hamburg Convention Center when it re-opens, and the other allows room for growth. Given the demand this year, the latter seems to make sense, but it’s a long, long term decision, not to be made lightly.

          1. I just want to add that the people working on congress are doing everything they can to integrate people which can’t attend the congress physically. The talks get recorded and streamed in multiple languages, questions can be asked via irc and will be read to the speaker in q&a. There is a thing called ‘Congress Everywhere’ which is the idea to decentralize congress, come together in hackerspaces, watch streams and have a great time with people there.

            There are to much good talks for every slot so there will be rejected talks. But there are so many other “Chaosevents” all over Germany the rest of the year. They aren’t sold out very often and are happy for participants. You can discuss about the action by Pritlove but remember, that this was an action of a single person and not of the CCC.

            So please, if you have constructive critics, give feedback but stop complaining about “everything is just bad”

  2. Hello,

    this is the first time, I take a look inside to CCC, by reading these lines. My interest is growing and I will do my Job to stay informed and tuned-in. Thank you for ‘upgrade’ and Information.

  3. This 33C3 was very cool but there were also bad events the organizers/community needs to talk about:

    The kraken is an old antisemitic symbol which was prominently used in Nazi Germany’s propaganda magazine “Der Stürmer”. There has been several attempts to stop privacy organisation “Digitalcourage” (which uses the “data kraken” on the 33C3 and elsewhere) from using it, without success. They want it.

    There also was a large display where Trump and “Rapefugees” has been displayed, see https://twitter.com/tdiesenreiter/status/814462054115475456

    1. The large display just displays stuff people send there. And since every device there has an internet-routed IPv4 address, an /56 IPv6 network, and a really fast up/downlink, the persons that send this stuff there wouldn’t even need to be at the congress.
      If you you know some german, you could read this [1] to get a better understanding of the origins & usage of the kraken.
      As someone who has attended a lot of CCC events, I can assure you nobody there is racist. The opposite is true, almost everybody there is politically quite left-oriented, even though the venue it self, and the CCC is politically neutral.

      [1] http://publikative.org/2010/07/22/krake-200/

    2. It is not true that the kraken was “prominently used in Nazi Germany’s propaganda magazine ‘Der Stürmer’”. As a matter of fact, that heinous publications used lots of animal caricatures to incite hatred against jews (or the jews in general), but we could not find any octopuses or krakens there.

      If you are interested in anti-semitic iconography in Der Stürmer, here is scholarly publication on this very topic:
      Julia Schwarz: „Visueller Antisemitismus in den Titelkarikaturen der Zeitung ‚Der Stürmer‘“. In: Jahrbuch Antisemitismusforschung 19 von 2010 (pages 197–217).
      (It mentions a lot of animals but no krakens or octopuses.)

      Of course, Digitalcourage is not anti-semitic. The Twitter thread you link exclusively talks about the defacement of that airport-style display by fascists. That indeed was a shocking incident nobody I know expected to happen at a Chaos Communication Congress. Of course, the incident was entirely unrelated to Digitalcourage.

  4. This year was the first time I visited the congress, and it was positively overwhelming. An awesome event, with so much cool stuff in addition to the high-quality talks. And unparalleled professionalism in organization and logistics, despite all the Chaos(tm) going on. A big thank you to all the great people who made this event possible!

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