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US hackers eye alliances with kindred spirits in China

Veteran US hackers are on their way to China on a quest to foster alliances with peers and dispel notions that all of their kindred spirits there are cyber spies.

The budding effort was unveiled at an infamous DefCon hacker gathering in Las Vegas known for attracting rogue software savants that have found ways to crack things ranging from smartphones and Web browsers to power plants.

"We want to create understanding between the two hacker cultures," said Colin Ames, who was part of a scouting team setting out for an XCon information security conference that starts Wednesday in Beijing.

"It's nonsense that all Chinese hackers are evil and hack for the government."

US hackers have long claimed to be wrongly branded cyber criminals or vandals when they are more often bright minds passionate about outwitting the way computer-run devices work.

The perception has been changing, with federal agents switching from sneaking into DefCon undercover to openly attending with badges on their belts and job offers on their lips.

"The fear of the unknown was replaced by the desire to get the mission done," said Matt Lewis, a longtime member of the DefCon community whose hacker name is 'Barkode.

'"As soon as they stopped trying to throw us in jail we were able to become legitimate."

Lewis recalled using a fake name for his first flight to the annual DefCon event about 15 years ago, and having federal police raid his home.

While police began seeing hackers more as allies in the Internet Age and less as bad guys, teenagers that lived on glory in the virtual realm were growing up and realizing they needed to earn livings in the real world, according to Lewis.

"Those 15-year-olds hacking had to grow up at one point and move out of mom's basement," Lewis said.

"It turns out it is a lot more profitable to work with law enforcement than to flip burgers."

Members of US military, spy, and police agencies mix openly with renegade DefCon hackers. One branch of the US military recruited 62 hackers from DefCon last year, according to organizers.

An elite US cyber team that has stealthily tracked Internet villains for more than a decade pulled back its cloak of secrecy on Sunday to recruit hackers at a DefCon.

Vigilant was described by its chief Chet Uber as a sort of cyber "A-Team" taking on terrorists, drug cartels, mobsters and other enemies on the Internet.

"We do things the government can't," Uber said. "This was never supposed to have been a public thing."

Vigilant is an alliance of slightly more than 600 volunteers and its secret ranks reportedly include chiefs of technology at top firms and former high-ranking US cyber spies.

The group scours Internet traffic for clues about online attacks, terrorists, cartels and other targets rated as priorities by members of the democratically run private organization.

"There should be companies coming here to recruit people," Uber said at DefCon. "There is just the fear of people with spiked green hair."

Ames has teamed with Hong Kong-based computer security researcher Anthony Lai to bring Chinese hackers and their impressive research into the DefCon fold.

"China has good hackers the same as other nations," Lai said. "This is an East-meets-West, and I hope this culture can be extended to other countries."