LAS VEGAS (AP) - They're self-described nerds, using names like "Mudge" or "Dark Tangent" and dressing all in black.
These mostly gawky, mostly male teen-agers and twenty-somethings also are the country's smartest and slyest computer hackers. On Friday, more than 1,500 of them gathered in a stuffy convention hall to swap secrets.
It is Def Con 5, the fifth annual meeting of hackers, crackers, phone phreaks and 'zine publishers. Some are teen-agers who pull all-nighters trying to crack a company's computer system. Others are former hackers who now provide computer system security.
"These are the guys that got beat up in high school and this is their chance to get back," said Drew Williams, whose company wants to hire hackers to learn how to better protect its customers.
"This is a subculture of computer technology," said Williams of AXENT Technologies of Rockville, Md. "They truly have found a home."
Hacking comes from an intellectual desire to figure out how things work, and the desire to show off how much you know, convention-goers said. Grace and skill count for more than sheer power, and an elegant solution to a problem gains more esteem from ones' peers than klutzy fixes.
Def Con is named for the military term Defense Condition, a measure of just how close the country is to nuclear war. It began five years ago as a massive party thrown by a young bulletin board operator who goes by the name Dark Tangent.
There are regular amusements - the Spot the Fed contest and Hacker's Jeopardy, where missing a question means drinking a beer. The convention's version of the childhood standard Capture the Flag game requires them to break into each other's computer system.
One group of young hackers, some carrying microphones, phones and earpieces, were overheard joking about getting into the Nellis Air Force Base computer system. One hacker said many illegal entries come because of human error, and said he has impersonated someone before to get a password.
Few of these wizards will identify themselves because they fear criminal prosecution. Even A.J., a 25-year-old security analyst who sports a dog collar and nose ring, is cautious about personal information.
"Hackers aren't just people who break into other people's computers," he said. "I like to think of a hacker as somebody who takes something apart and puts it back together better.
"Hackers are not evil people. Hackers are kids."