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Geeks Meet at 'What the Hack' Conference

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There are hundreds of tents on the hot and soggy campground, but this isn't your ordinary summertime outing, considering that it includes workshops with such titles as "Politics of Psychedelic Research" or "Fun and Mayhem with RFID."

This is the three-day "What The Hack" convention, a self-styled computer-security conference dealing such issues as digital passports, biometrics and cryptography.

Borrowing heavily from Woodstock and the more professionalized Def Con conference that begins Friday in Las Vegas, the event held every four years in the Netherlands draws an international array of experts and geeks. About 3,000 gathered Thursday for the opening.

Unlike better-known and better-funded industry meetings, "What the Hack" had to fight for its right to exist. The mayor of the southern Dutch town of Boxtel, who oversees the village of Liempde where the convention is held, initially tried to stop the event from pitching its hundreds of tents outside his town - a reluctance stemming from the lingering public image of hackers as asocial, anarchistic and vaguely menacing.

The mayor withdrew his objections after meetings with organizers.

Some of the scheduled lectures and workshops might reinforce the convention's shady reputation, such as the talk about mayhem with RFID, which stands for radio frequency identification tags.

But other seminars appeared wholesome enough, such as the workshop on how to make homes more energy efficient or how activists can lobby governments more effectively.

Even the local police officers assigned to monitor "What the Hack" are being included in the event. Officers are holding daily workshops to educate the public about how they go about securing events like these. Such cooperation with authorities would have raised eyebrows in previous years.

Befitting the age of terrorism, the conference is taking up such security issues as biometrics and new passport technology.

But in line with its anarchic reputation, organizers have made a parody of their own security arrangements, asking attendees to screen their own belongings at an unmanned baggage scanner. Rubber gloves for a "do-it-yourself body cavity search" are provided free of charge.

Overall, the atmosphere resembles that of a music festival, with orderly people waiting in line to buy Jolt colas and vegetarian meals. Children and hammocks are as prevalent as ponytails and laptops, and a curiously popular hangout is the Slacker Salon, a computer-free zone where frenetic Web surfing is taboo.

The relaxed setting is a conscious choice, according to Internet entrepreneur Rop Gonggrijp, who in 1989 helped organize the seminal Galactic Hacker Party, an open-air convention that formed the template for What The Hack.

"The idea was to break the stereotype" of hackers as sun-averse malcontents bent on vandalism, he said. "They've never been part of this community. And now there's fortunately space in the media for more than one kind of hacker."

Rutgers University anthropologist Biella Coleman said events like these serve a critical function for the many communities of people who are acquainted online, but rarely get the chance to meet in the real world.

"Virtuality needs sociality," she said.

Klaartje Bruyn, for example, is a sign-maker by day, but came to What the Hack for social, rather than professional reasons. Electronically arranging meetings with friends both real and virtual from the comfort of her hammock, she lauded how the festival could bring together so many far-flung yet like-minded people.

"It's like a blind date with 3,000 people," she said.

By DOUGLAS HEINGARTNER
Associated Press

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