Undercover Dateline Reporter Outed,
Flees from Defcon”> LAS VEGAS—The Defcon hackers convention has been infiltrated.
NBC Dateline sent at least one undercover reporter to pose as a normal show attendee on the first day of the show, Aug. 3. The reporter came with a hidden camera in her purse and a goal in mind: to out an undercover federal agent—any fed would do—for a planned show tentatively titled “Hackers for Hire.”
She was being tracked from the moment her plane touched down in Las Vegas.
Instead of outing a fed, the reporter, enthusiastically identified by Defcon as NBC Universal Associate Producer Michelle Madigan, ended up bolting from a presentation by Defcon founder Jeff Moss after Defcon lured her into Moss talk.
“We knew where she was sitting. Jeff got up and said, We have a new contest, called Spot the Undercover Press,” a Defcon organizer said. “Then he asked the audience, What should we do? Bam! She got up and bolted from the room, and everybody started chasing her.”
Defcon organizers said that they intended to offer Madigan a chance to come clean: to get up on stage and accept a media pass—one had already been offered to her four times—before she bolted.
A mob—Defcon estimates it consisted of 150 people—of Defcon attendees, staffers (aka “Goons”) and media converged on Madigan and followed her as she avoided questions, ducked her head and ran for her car in the parking lot, a la “Catch an Identity Thief,” “Catch a Predator” and other Dateline shows where targets are chased as reporters shout questions.
Defcon was alerted to the infiltration the day before the show opened by a source they declined to identify. Defcon organizers decided to contact Madigan in turn. Working as “friends,” various Defcon staff members working undercover contacted her and offered to set her up with the interviews she needed, offered to set her up with Moss, offered her media credentials and more.
She declined, saying that she preferred to “fish” for what she needed undercover.
To gain access to Defcon, media attendees are required to sign a disclosure that explicitly forbids photos or other electronic capture of attendees without their knowledge and permission.
The Defcon staff member who greeted her at the reception desk was already tipped off as to Madigans true identity. The staff member, requesting that his name be withheld, told eWEEK and other media that he offered to show her the media rules and regulations. She declined, saying that registering as a “Human”—i.e., a regular, nonmedia attendee—would do.
He then accompanied her away from the registration desk. Spotting Moss, he offered to set Madigan up to talk with him. She declined. As they passed the womens restroom, she said to the staff member that she needed to use the restroom to put on her hidden camera.
“I said, I dont think theyre allowed here,” he said. “She said she thought it would be OK. At that point I made a radio call [for backup],” he said.
Asked how Defcon got tipped off, Priest, a senior Defcon staffer, aka “the face of Defcon,” said, “There are people in her line of work who like me better than they like her producer and what she was trying to do.”
Outing the Agent
“We got a heads up yesterday she was coming out. So we back-channeled, unofficially reached out and said we want to help, we want you to have a successful story, we want it to be fair and balanced. Do you want access to Dark Tangent? Do you want to shoot video? No. She declined. The person of interest was observed, we were told when she landed at airport, and we had people” ready to intercept her, Priest said.
The idea of outing those working undercover in security is something Defcon organizers dont discuss lightly. Its not that theyre against the First Amendment, by any means, Priest said.
The thing is, any fed whom Madigan might have managed to out could have turned out to be on the brink of shipping out to Afghanistan or some other dangerous area where federal agents are engaged, Priest said. If identified on film, an agent or the agents family could be endangered.
“You dont want it known if you work for the [National Security Agency] or the CIA,” Priest said.
Priest said its conjecture, but his guess is that Madigan wanted a splash piece along the lines of showing Defcon as a group of mostly criminals from whom federal agents are here to learn. “She said she believes people in Kansas would be interested in knowing whats happening at Defcon,” Priest said, quoting Defcon staffers who worked undercover who talked with Madigan. Thats Kansas, he said, as a metaphor for mainstream America.
“We have this image in the media as evil, dastardly, bad people,” Priest said. “The reality is, we are the ultimate explorers, if you will. We see a problem or technology, we want to see how it works. Im speaking of the majority. There are some social misfits who do Nigerian spam or botnets. Thats the Russian mafia, whos realized they can [profit from black-hat hacking],” he said.
The criminal element makes up a small minority of Defcon attendees, but if theyre bold enough to be blatant, theyre in trouble. Defcon has proved this time after time in the past. One incident involved an attendee who gave a presentation titled “Hack the RNC.” On stage, the presenter exhorted attendees to go back to New York and blow up a bus in front of Vice President Dick Cheney and kill members of the Republican party.
“I thought I would be killed in the rush of people running to the stage to beat the snot out of him,” Priest said. Meanwhile, out a side door, eight to nine federal agents were “chomping at the bit for access to the kid to drag him into jail,” he said.
“They had to take him into custody to protect” him from the Defcon crowd, he said. He wound up serving three years out of a five-year jail sentence.
“We are a global community, but we are a law-abiding and patriotic community,” said Priest, who himself is a government employee.
“We think of this, youre in Geneva,” Priest said. “Feds come in, they dont bust us. We dont turn their phone numbers into 976 numbers. Its neutral territory. And to have someone come in and poop on your couch, its bad form.”
NBC Universal had not responded to phone calls by the time story this posted.
Editors Note: This story was updated to correct the name of the NBC show for which Michelle Madigan works. eWEEK regrets the error.
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