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defcon electronic badges

What are these things?

From 2006 to 2010, I had the honor of designing the conference badge for DEFCON, the largest and oldest continuously running hacker and computer security convention in the world. DEFCON is a mix of good guys, bad guys, government officials, and everyone in between, all focused on having fun, sharing technical information, seeing old friends, and learning new things. What originally started as a small gathering of a hundred people from a local bulletin board system has expanded into tens of thousands of people making an annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to celebrate all forms of technology subversion and underground culture.


DEFCON is often regarded for being ahead of their time with its unique, colorful badge designs, using materials and manufacturing methods not typically seen at conferences, like laser cut acrylic, lenticular printing, and liquid filled pouches. As far as we know, we were the first public conference to incorporate artistic, functional electronics into an attendee badge. 


I built each year's badge upon the successes, failures, and feedback from previous years and ultimately resulted in a series of five consecutive electronic badges each with various features and functionality.


HOW I GOT INVOLVED

I grew up in the hacker community and have been long time friends with Jeff Moss, also known as The Dark Tangent, who is the founder of DEFCON. Jeff also started Black Hat, a professional computer security conference that occurs the week before DEFCON. I've been teaching a Hardware Hacking Training course at Black Hat since 2005, which incorporates a custom circuit board for the various hands-on exercises. The circuit board itself is shaped in the shape of my Grand Idea Studio logo, which is a G with an exclamation point through it. Jeff saw the badge one day and said, "Hey, we should do something like that for DEFCON." That was the spark. He's always had a great intuition about how to make DEFCON stand out from other conferences and how to appeal to the hacker mindset of the attendees. 


At the time, hardware and electronics were not well represented in the hacker community. The do-it-yourself and electronics hobbyists communities were alive and well, but there was little crossover into the hacker world and how electronics devices could be created, manipulated, modified, or repurposed. We weren't aware of any other conference that had an active, artistic electronic badge and thought it would be a perfect opportunity to introduce electronics to the community in a fun and practical way. True to the hacker ethos, the badge was open source in hopes of inspiring people to explore the design, learn from it, and possibly modify it. To help make that effort worthwhile, we also ran a badge hacking contest, which would award the most ingenious, obscure, mischievous, or technologically astounding badge modifications created during the conference.


We didn't know how the attendees would initially react to the electronic badges. Would they enjoy using them or would they just think they were an annoyance to wear around their neck? There were lots of aspects to consider during the design phase, including artwork, electronic functionality, physical size and shape, circuit board layout, battery life, weight, cost, usability, and hackability. Each year was a stressful endeavor, but the end result was well worth it.

My first Badge: Defcon 14 (2006)

The primary goal of the DEFCON 14 Badge was to have an interesting, yet very simple electronic design. Since this was our first attempt at an electronic badge, we wanted to make sure that what we designed could reliably be manufactured in time for the conference with minimal risk.


The badge was based around a Microchip PIC10F202 6-pin microprocessor, which controlled the output state of two 10mm jumbo blue LEDs. A single momentary pushbutton switch was used to cycle through the five operating states of the badge:


Both LEDs On

Both LEDs Blinking

Alternating LEDs

Pseudo-Random Pattern

Sleep

 

Some of the design challenges included keeping total badge, assembly, and testing cost under $5 per unit, ensuring that the battery would last the length of the conference (at least three days), and creating the artistic design elements of the printed circuit board. Seven different soldermask colors were used to denote the different DEFCON clientele: Human, Goon, Press, Speaker, Vendor, VIP, and Limited Edition.

DEfcon 14 badge hackING CONTEST

There were over a dozen official entries in this year’s contest. The winning entry, named the Event Generator Ghoul (EGG), was created by Scott Scheferman (Shagghie), an audiophile and DJ. Scott modified the LEDs on his badge to serve as event generators into his analog synthesizer. He connected the hacked badge to his Cwejman synthesizer’s envelope generator and LPF cutoff frequency modulation jacks via the 1/4" stereo plug. He also installed two piezo buzzers onto the badge to verify his initial concept and for debugging purposes. 


Other notable mentions include Zane’s flame thrower, Dr. Volts' multi-colored blinking badge with ashtray reflector, and Mark’s firmware hack to enable the badge’s LEDs to blink "DEFCON 14" in Morse code.

DC14 WINNING BADGE HACK: EVENT GENERATOR GHOUL

DEFCON 15 Badge (2007)

The primary goal of the DEFCON 15 Badge was to provide the user with the capability to display a user-customizable scrolling text message.


The badge was based around a Freescale MC9S08QG8 8-bit microcontroller and uses a matrix of 95 LEDs (5 columns by 19 rows) to display vertically-scrolling text messages. Source code was developed using the freely available Codewarrior Development Studio for HC(S)08. Optional circuitry (fully designed, but unpopulated on the badge circuit board) supported a Freescale MMA7260QT Triple-Axis Accelerometer for motion sensing applications and a Freescale MC13191FC 2.4GHz RF transceiver for 802.15.4/ZigBee applications. Two CR2032 3V Lithium coin cell batteries provided the required power and two Quantum Research QT100 capacitive sensors were used as the user interface and to cycle through the five operating states of the badge:


Text Message Display (Default = "I <heart> DEFCON 15")

Text Message Entry

Scroll Speed Selection

Persistence-of-Vision (POV)

Sleep


A total of 6,800 badges were manufactured and six different text cut-outs and soldermask colors were used to denote the different DEFCON clientele: Human, Goon, Press, Speaker, Vendor, Uber (awarded to the winners of official DEFCON contests).

defcon 15 badge hacking Contest

There were 7 official entries in this year’s contest. The winning entry from Team Osogato (Len Sassaman, Meredith Patterson, Dustin Cooper, Martin Murray, Tongen, and Maxinux) was the only one that combined hardware and firmware modifications. The team hacked the badge into a line-level meter for under $10 in additional components that used the LED matrix to display the peak levels of an audio signal fed into one channel of the A/D. The two capacitive sensors are used to adjust the levels of the input signal and three shades of "greyscale" are used to create a fading effect on the display. 


For the icing on the cake, the team worked with The Brothers Grimm, a Michigan-based rap group, to create a rap song based on my Ode to the DEFCON Badge poem, which I wrote for the DEFCON conference program in lieu of an actual user's manual.


Second place went to Team Slackers (Botten and Dov), who created a single sign-on generator which displayed the password on the badge and worked in conjunction with the Windows-based, open source pGina user authentication scheme.

DC15 WINNING BADGE HACK: LINE LEVEL METER AND RAP SONG

DEFCON 16 Badge (2008)

Part information sharing, part social experiment, the primary goal of the DEFCON 16 Badge was to allow attendees to transfer files to another attendee using his or her badge. Attendees could load their desired data onto a SecureDigital (SD) card, insert it into the badge, and transfer it to a willing recipient via infrared. An additional mode, based on the popular TV-B-Gone product developed by Mitch Altman, transmitted all known television remote control power-off codes one after another, allowing the user to turn off practically any TV in North America, Asia, or Europe.


The badge was based around a Freescale Flexis MC9S08JM60 8-bit microcontroller and features infrared data transmission and reception, SD card and FAT16 file system support, and a USB bootloader for in-the-field firmware upgrades. Source code was developed using the freely available CodeWarrior Development Studio for Microcontrollers and the Freescale JM60 GUI Installer. A single CR123A 3V Lithium battery provided the required power and a single push-button switch served as the user interface to cycle through the three operating states of the badge:


Receive

Transmit (or TV-B-Gone Mode if no SD card is inserted)

Sleep


A total of 8,500 badges were manufactured and eight different text cut-outs and soldermask/silkscreen color combinations were used to denote the different DEFCON clientele: Human, Goon, Staff, Press, Speaker, Vendor, Contest Organizer, and Uber (awarded to the winners of official DEFCON contests).

DEFCON 16 Badge Hacking Contest

There were 20 official entries in this year’s contest. The winning entry from the Greek Geeks was a Human Password Generator. A software application on a PC laptop tracked the motion of the badge’s LEDs via a webcam and sent a hash of the motion profile over USB to the badge, which then computed the password based on the motion hash and transferred the result back to the PC.


Other notable mentions include laptop remote control emulation by BonzoESC, Sterling, Critta, & Jymbolia, and motion-generated/context-sensitive music using an external accelerometer connected to the JM60 MCU.

DC16 WINNING BADGE HACK: HUMAN PASSWORD GENERATOR

DEFCON 17 Badge (2009)

The goal of the DEFCON 17 Badge was to be stark, yet elegant. 


The badge was based around a Freescale MC56F8006 16-bit digital signal controller, Knowles Acoustics SPM0408LE5H amplified MEMS microphone, and Kingbright RGB LED. Its three operating states were determined solely by the sound level received by the microphone:


Party: The multicolor LED is affected by audio input volume and frequency

Quiet/Idle: The LED slowly blends through a pattern of colors

Sleep


Other features included multi-badge communication via a wired interface and a static serial bootloader for in-the-field firmware upgrades. Source code was developed using the freely available CodeWarrior for 56800/E Digital Signal Controllers. A single CR2032 3V Lithium coin cell battery provided the required power.


A total of 6,694 badges were manufactured with a unique badge shape used to denote each type of DEFCON clientele: Human, Goon, Press, Speaker, Vendor, Contest Organizer, and Uber (awarded to the winners of official DEFCON contests). Each shape served as a puzzle piece and the puzzle can be completed by placing the seven badges in the correct positions.

DEFCOn 17 Badge Hacking Contest

There were 32 official entries in this year’s contest. The winning entry was a two-part anti-surveillance system created by Zoz: 


1) Defeating automated facial recognition by generating alternating colors and patterns of light at a frequency slightly less than 60Hz in order to create optical noise (based on research demonstrated at the 2006 ACE, Advances in Computer Entertainment)


2) Aiding in bypassing PIR motion sensors ala the movie Sneakers using the DEF CON 16 Badge. The badge had a temperature sensor to let you know when the room was the proper ambient temperature (body temperature is ideal) and then a servo motor would move two plastic feet to guide the user as to how slowly to move through the room to not trip the system (two inches per second in the movie).


Other notable mentions include a sound-fearing blimp by Team Hack the Badge and a multifunction frequency generator & voice amplifier by 501d3r Guy.

DC17 WINNING BADGE HACK: ANTI-SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM

DEFCON 18 Badge (2010)

The primary goal of the DEFCON 18 Badge was to incorporate a novel type of display and provide the user with a means to control it. 


In a nutshell, the badge was designed to display small, 30 pixel x 30 pixel "glyphs" on an E Ink-style LCD, which allowed the wearer to publicly share their hobbies and interests. There were 11 pre-defined glyphs: Alcohol, gambling, electronics, locksport, love, music, network, software, telephony, and wireless. I also created an API (application programming interface) that allowed hackers to send commands to the badge via the USB port and directly change the LCD contents.


The badge was based around a Freescale MC56F8006 16-bit digital signal controller and the pièce de résistance was a Kent Displays 128-by-32 pixel reflective cholesteric liquid crystal display (ChLCD). Other functionality included USB connectivity, seamless power switching, and hidden modes for a variety of contests held during the conference. Source code was developed using the freely available CodeWarrior for 56800/E Digital Signal Controllers. A single CR2032 3V Lithium coin cell battery provided the required power.


A total of 7,780 badges were manufactured on aluminum substrate PCBs with unique laser engraved graphics used to denote each type of DEFCON clientele: Human, Goon, Press, Speaker, Vendor, Contest Organizer, and Uber (awarded to the winners of official DEFCON contests).

DEFcon 18 badge hacking contest

There were 21 official entries in this year’s contest. The winning entry was a UPC-A/UPC-E Barcode Writer/Emulator by Brad Threatt, which can fool the self-checkout scanners used at major retailers. 


Other notable mentions include a breathalyzer using an alcohol gas sensor by Dan Z., a personal oscilloscope by Austin, and a stroboscopic guitar tuner by Michael Ossmann.

DC18 WINNING BADGE HACK: UPC BARCODE WRITER/EMULATOR

LEssons Learned

The biggest problem that we encountered over the years was with shipping components to our manufacturer in China. Each time, all the paperwork had been completed correctly, but some parts were held by Chinese customs with no rhyme or reason. The language barrier made things even more difficult when it came time to try and figure out the necessary steps in order to get the parts released.


One year, some of the components weren't released from customs until three days before DEFCON actually started. The manufacturing facility worked 24 hours a day to manufacture, test, and ship thousands of badges back to us before registration opened. The cost for expedited shipping was over $10,000, but we really had no choice if we wanted the badges in time for the conference. In anticipation of not receiving the badges, we had created a series of paper badges as backup, but relying on those would have been a huge failure.


For DEFCON 17, a batch of over 6,000 programmed microcontrollers were held in customs. We had sent the parts many months in advance, having learned from our previous close calls, but it wasn't enough. Chinese customs was not clear in what they wanted to let the parts through and ended up holding them until a few months after the conference had occurred! We had a feeling this would happen, so we ordered another batch a few weeks prior to the conference. Miraculously, those went through just fine. The microcontrollers that were released after DEFCON 17 were reprogrammed and used on the DEFCON 18 Badge without incident.


The main lessons we learned through these mishaps were to weigh the benefits of on-shore versus off-shore manufacturing, leave enough time in the development process for unforeseen delays, and always have a backup plan in case things go wrong. 

what's next?

A lot has happened since I designed DEFCON’s first electronic badge in 2006. Within the hacker community, using electronic badges for conferences and parties has become the norm. This is a fantastic trend, as it shows the strength and popularity of hobbyist electronics, but I was tired of the process and thought it was time for a change.


After DEFCON 18, I passed the reigns to my longtime friend, Ryan Clarke, also known as LostboY. Ryan has continued the tradition of unique and interesting badge designs, incorporating his love of puzzles and secret messages, and further weaving the badge into the fabric of the DEFCON conference.