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What if someone threw a hacker conference, and nobody showed up?

As I boarded a United flight at SFO on March 17, the first day of San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order, that question was on my mind. I wondered just how many people would be attending CanSecWest 2020 in Vancouver, and if I’d be the only one to arrive in person.

Car traffic in both SF and Vancouver was light, even though Vancouver wouldn’t enact stricter social-distancing rules until March 21, the day after I would return home. The airplane was half-empty, and there was no line for security in either airport. It seemed that some people were finally starting to take seriously the spread of the novel coronavirus plaguing the world.

As bizarre as the lack of cars on the road and bodies in the plane were, the 20th annual CanSecWest attendance was even emptier. Three attendees showed up in person—not counting me—along with half a dozen staffers. That two-to-one ratio of conference organizer to attendee might seem excessive, except that the personnel were there to run the online component of the conference. This experiment in virtualization might point the way forward for confabs of all kinds, given that Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and other tech companies all scuttled their plans for the 2020 editions of their in-person conferences months in advance.



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CanSecWest is a single-track cybersecurity conference that, in normal times, attracts between 400 and 500 people every March to Vancouver’s Sheraton Wall Centre. That’s about 1 percent the attendance of the big DefCon event in Las Vegas. But CanSecWest draws a pilgrimage of regulars for its technical, international, and decidedly cozier atmosphere. It’s also the home of the annual Pwn2Own contest, where hackers can win the devices—including Tesla cars—that they compete to break into.

Attending the event in the middle of a pandemic was not a decision that I took lightly, and I acknowledge that I may have made the wrong decision. I had come down with a sore throat a week after attending the RSA Conference and B-Sides SF in February. (RSA was probably the last major tech conference to be held as usual before the cancellations began, and several attendees would contract the coronavirus.)

My sore throat went away after a day, and I showed no fever or other symptoms of any kind of illness. Still, con crud or coronavirus? How was I to know? What few COVID-19 tests were available had been reserved for people more at risk than me.

This story was originally commissioned by Fast Company. Read the full story here