Following the swift emergence of the COVID-19 crisis, organizers of cybersecurity and hacking conferences of all sizes have been faced with three choices: Cancel their events altogether, postpone them to the presumably better future, or find some way to hold them in a virtual manner on the internet. Wild West Hacking Fest, originally slated for March 10 to March 13 in San Diego, quickly converted itself into a virtual conference and was soon followed by dozens of conferences that modified their plans to accommodate the need for the social distancing.

A new form of non-traditional information security conference has emerged over the past two weeks. These conferences are organized by leading information security professionals who are leveraging existing, off-the-shelf online video conferencing and collaboration tools such as GotToWebinar or Zoom to rapidly mount internet-based alternatives to in-the-flesh confabs.

Maintaining the cybersecurity community

Part of the impetus behind the creation of these virtual events is the drive to maintain some sense of community among cybersecurity professionals, who rely heavily on conferences to exchange information and create professional bonds. “We desperately have to keep people mentally engaged and caring about one another for the short and longer term as we deal with this crisis,” Lesley Carhart, organizer of one of these virtual conferences, tells CSO.

Carhart’s conference, PancakesCon, was a day-long two-track event held on March 22. (PancakesCon is a play on Lesley’s widely followed Twitter account which uses the handle @hacks4pancakes.) The event was seen as a huge success with 1,500 registrants for one track and an expected 3,000 for another. PancakesCon was conceived, developed and held in less than a week and featured two tracks and twenty talks that were half infosec presentations and half hobby demonstrations. For example, the event kicked off with Black Hills Information Security Owner John Strand talking about network threat hunting for the first half of his talk. For the second half, Strand showed the thousands of attendees how to make White Russians using his home kitchen.

This new breed of virtual conferences has the flavor of public service, helping to productively occupy the cybersecurity community’s time as everyone copes with uncertainty and, for many, the unusual nature of working from home. “We can stay inside and keep people inside, and we can help one another make it through,” Carhart, who works as a principal threat analyst at industrial cybersecurity firm Dragos, says.

Conferences are the “social pillars” of the infosec and hacker communities, according to Joe Slowik, who also works at Dragos as a threat intelligence analyst and has stepped in to fill the void left by the shut-down of face-to-face conferences by creating his own virtual conference, CrisisCon. “While relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, such events serve as a great opportunity to reconnect with friends, make new contacts, as well as learning more about the fields we all love,” Slowik wrote on his conference website.

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