Utah Stories

Hacker’s Haven – Professional Nerds at Play

Salt Lake hackers work to thwart cyber security risks.


computer nerd
Illustration by Chris Bodily

Hackers are commonly known by which “hat” they wear–black or white. Black hats hack with bad intentions, like those who breached a federal database in July and nabbed the personnel records of 22 million government employees; or those said to have been hired by Kim Jong-Il to hack into Sony Pictures’ mainframe in an attempt to prevent the studio from releasing the The Interview which portrayed Kim in a less than flattering manner.

The Department of Homeland Security now believes cyber terrorism is one of the nation’s most serious threats. So who can save us from these threats? Where are these hackers? Are they all in North Korea, or are they perhaps here, hiding in our very midsts?

Tucked between a bar and Crown Burger, the Salt Lake City hackerspace might look like a vacant building, but inside it’s filled with members of the DC801 club. Here, hackers might take the most sinister viruses, set them loose on a server and stand back and watch the cyber-carnage.

This scene might seem like a perfect setting for the Department of Homeland Security to bust these cyber warriors, but these hackers wear white hats. Inside, members host IT specialists from some of the biggest companies—Intermountain Health, Zion’s Bank, Adobe—who drop in to learn how to counter the latest cyber threats. They also while away their time picking locks for fun, working with 3-D printers and generally nerding out.

DC801 board member Neil Wyler, aka “Grifter” says the success of the club has paralleled the growth of Utah’s “Silicon Slopes” tech community.

“We have a very high caliber of geek here,” Wyler says. “We’re highly educated but we don’t want to leave. People love it in Utah—it’s beautiful and I can be up on the mountains in 20 minutes. Why would I want to go somewhere else?”

While the focus of the group is information security, Wyler says the space has become a nerd’s refuge. Some nights members might reverse engineer the latest virus so they can keep their company’s servers safe, while other nights the space is filled with hard-core gamers playing Super Smash Brothers tournaments as if their lives depended on it. “We’ve basically created what we call a nerd clubhouse,” Wyler says.

I dropped by on a lockpicking night where a dozen or so gathered in the space picking handcuffs and padlocks locks while the late 90s flick Hackers played on a large flatscreen. Lockpicking is another aspect of the tinkering spirit that drives the group. Almost forty paying members support the space through monthly memberships. Wyler says the space also allows people to network, and learn about tech-company job openings.

Despite the negative stigma behind the name, Wyler says there’s more to the space and its members. “When people hear ‘hacker’ they start to freak out. But people who are members of the space have spoken at industry conferences all over the world, or are published authors and are in high positions at their companies. They’re professionals. We do have our fun though.”

The DC801 Lab is located at 353 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City, for more information visit www.801labs.org

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