Sabotage, Hallucinations, and Hacking at DEF CON 24

"Things get weird" during the convention's hyper-competitive badge challenge.


For the second year in a row, the hacker collective called “Council of Nine” navigated a wild world of traps, sabotage, hallucinations, and heavy coding to decipher the mysterious puzzle hidden in the DEF CON hacker convention’s ID badges.

Beyond some major DARPA-backed cybersecurity breakthroughs, one of the 24th DEF CON’s biggest talking points was the mysterious badges handed out to attendees. Shaped like a skull, the badge’s eyes lit up when a user input a cheat code from 1987 game Contra, and the back was covered in strange text snippets, but nobody was quite sure why.

It turns out, the Konami Code secret was a red herring. Every year, attendees micro-analyze the convention’s badge, searching for clues to crack the badge challenge. The challenge is a mysterious, extremely competitive tradition at DEF CON. A hacker named 1o57 designs a hyper-competitive, intricate scavenger hunt that pushes teams of hackers to their limits to find clues, solve riddles, break cyphers, and unlock the final answer to the puzzle, which all starts with the convention’s badge. This year’s, a team called Council of Nine won the challenge for the second consecutive year. The team later wrote a blog post about the wild competition, complete with the puzzle’s cryptic incorporations of Archer, David Bowie, and Justin Bieber as a dinosaur. When it was over, Council of Nine won the grand prize, a black badge that grants the holder free DEF CON entry for life. Inverse caught up with Council of Nine to find out more about the experience.

How did you guys meet?

The original members of the Council met at DC21; just a bunch of guys who were intrigued by the puzzle started working together. We did so well that year, that we decided to stick together and continue as a team. After that, additional members were found when we came across others who were working hard on the badge puzzle and needed a team.

When was your “eureka” moment this year, where you felt like you’d made the big breakthrough?

The nasty thing about 1o57’s badge challenge is that there’s rarely a single ‘eureka’ moment. The puzzle starts simple, but gets complicated quickly. By Friday, every solve is a big “eureka” and gives the group another burst of energy to keep going, despite our fatigue.

Do you ever have a sense that you’re coming to the end, or is it more grasping in the dark?

We tend to know we’re getting towards the end when we’ve uncovered a certain number of clues … and when things get weird. We’re not sure if it’s lack of sleep, or by design, but the clues and stages seem to get more and more strange as the contest goes on. When it’s 0500 on Saturday, and you’re staring at a talking moon … you’re almost there.

Why do you guys think you were able to win two years in a row?

Dedication. The badge challenge, although accessible, has become highly competitive. Our team keeps in touch all year and practices with other puzzles and learning about crypto all year. We begin at DEF CON as quickly as we can and take no or few breaks in order to crack the puzzle more quickly than other teams.

Did you try to sabotage any teams, like give rivals bad information?

It might happen from time to time.

Have there been any scary moments during the badge challenge, anything that freaked you out?

When 1o57 time-gated us. We were nearing the solve on early Saturday morning (0200-0400ish) when, suddenly, 1o57 decided to tell us that we can’t proceed any further until 1:57 p.m. the following day. Luckily, we were still pressing earlier than that, and discovered that this was a ruse. The next clue was available well before then, and other teams were all still hard at work. 1o57 was just messing with us.

What’s been the coolest discovery during a challenge?

Every year, 1o57 plays this nasty trick during the challenge where he forces us to learn about something interesting. Last year, we learned about radioactivity and a few different scientists. This year, we learned about a mathematician and some strange pop culture.

Creator 1o57 appears to leave little personal touches along the way, like YouTube videos. Whats been your favourite?

1o57 introduces us to so many weird things … Guy On A Buffalo is probably the best one from this year. Not to mention the hours of The Mighty Boosh we watched looking for clues.

What’s your secret strategy for winning?

Staying sharp all year, working hard during CON, and remaining aware of other competitors during CON.

Winners of the badge challenge receive a black badge for free lifelong entry. Do you intend to use it to its maximum?

Absolutely. The Uber will show up at CON every year.