GrrCON: playground for hackers


Chris Payne, Jaime Payne, Abraham Jones, Doug Nibbelink and Jeff Bleich are planning a hacking event. Photo by Michael Buck

GrrCON, a Grand Rapids-based technology hacking and security event, is set for its third annual conference Sept. 12-13 in DeVos Place.

Tickets are $115 and include food and beer at the conference, said Chris Payne, the founder of GrrCON, adding that he expects about 1,000 people from all over the Midwest and the world to attend.

For two days, booths will be set up for technology professionals to make presentations on various topics, while workshops and a Solutions Arena also will be available, Payne said. Cyber security leaders Kevin Johnson, CEO and security consultant at Secure Ideas, and Georgia Weidman, founder of Bulb Security, will be keynote speakers.

“We’re on the head of the curve (when it comes to training). This is people giving out research they’ve just done. You want to talk about saving on a training budget — $2 a course is pretty good,” he said.

“The best thing about GrrCON is if you’re friendly and ask questions, they’ll get answered. Just get over the intimidation of not knowing what’s going on.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a “hacker,”isn’t necessarily someone who’s breaking the law by stealing information on a computer, although bypassing a computer system’s security, or at least understanding how to, is sometimes a necessary part of computer security. The dictionary also defines a hacker as “an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer.” It is this kind of hacker who will be attending the event, Payne said. 

Payne said the conference in some ways is the Midwest’s response to DEF CON, one of the planet’s biggest hacker conventions, held annually in Las Vegas.

“This started in 2011 as a way to bring the larger hacker experience to the Midwest. A lot of people in the area don’t go to DEF CON in Las Vegas. We wanted to bring the atmosphere of DEF CON to the area,” he said. “It’s really not themed toward any device, like an iPhone or an iPad. We’re themed around exploitation of all devices.”

It’s a fun but wild time, Payne said, filled with adult techies treating computers and software the way a curious 12-year-old would a toaster — they just want to take it apart and see how it works, he said.

There is usually an attendee who walks around with a mini-cell tower device that can block cell phone signals, overriding cell phones by connecting them to his tower, thus giving him full access to all cell phones. He bears a sign that reads: “I’m intercepting cell phones. Please be advised,” Payne said.

“At the actual hacking conference, I don’t turn on my computer,” he said. “You’ll get people walking around with minitowers and capturing phone calls. … We’ve never had an accident where anything was stolen or used inappropriately.”

Grand Rapids is the perfect place for such a conference, he said. The city’s technology reputation is growing, Payne said, calling local security “extremely talented.”

“I am blown away by the level of talent that we have in the area. There are people that live in this area that do things that most people would find unbelievable,” he said.

“I think it’s self-driven from the people in the community themselves. We feed off each other. I can absolutely see Grand Rapids becoming a (technology) hub. I see no reason why it would slow down.”

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