I hadn’t been at Def Con for more than five minutes before I was mobbed by hackers asking to see my conference badge. I had just left the press registration room at one of the world’s largest hacking conferences, but the attendees lurking outside the door weren’t concerned about my journalistic cred. Instead, they were all trying to solve an elaborate puzzle that implicated every attendee—and as I soon found out, I was one of the few people who could help them solve it.
Over the course of a weekend in Las Vegas at this year’s Def Con I spoke with dozens of people making and collecting hardware badges in an attempt to understand what compels attendees to drain their bank accounts on circuit boards and race through the labyrinthian halls of Caesar’s Palace in a mad scavenger hunt for rare badges. To an outsider, these hackers seem to have succumbed to madness, but now I know better. This is no badge sickness—it’s badge life.