A “Dateline NBC” undercover reporter tried a little social engineering of her own at a well-known conference of computer hackers and security experts — and reportedly failed spectacularly.
Defcon, an annual convention for hackers and security experts, was held this year at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Apparently, the undercover journalist, identified in reports as Michelle Madigan, is an associate producer for the news program “Dateline NBC.” She was apparently attending Defcon with the intent to use a hidden camera to gain illicit footage of the conference and ideally catch some federal agents talking with known criminal hackers.
“This is a conference that is supposedly attended by people who either cross the line or define the practices that do cross the line,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “Instead of arresting people, this is more of a case of law enforcement learning what the bad guys are doing so they are better able to protect citizens from those practices.”
One Small Problem
Madigan’s cover was apparently blown so far in advance that conference organizers offered her an official press pass — which meant she’d have to turn off her hidden camera and report openly on the conference. She refused at least four times, according to reports, and attended the event as a regular attendee.
Because federal law enforcement employees regularly attend Defcon to keep track of what hackers are up to, the real hackers like to play a game called “Spot the Fed.” This time around, Defcon Founder Jeff Moss turned the tables and changed the game to “Spot the Undercover Reporter.”
“Sure, we all have secrets,” Moss said to attendees at the session Madigan was attending.
“Sure, we all hide stuff from each other, but we kind of like to make things be really out in the open. … It came to our attention that there might be a reporter here with a hidden pinhole camera, not as press, recording people for a piece on hiring hackers,” Moss explained to the crowd. “I’m not cool with that, especially when they turn down an opportunity to get a press badge.”
Hearing the booing from the crowd, Madigan must have realized her cover was irreparably blown. She bolted for the exit.
YouTube on the Scene
Considering the demographic present at Defcon, one might expect video of the incident to quickly end up on YouTube, which is exactly what happened.The video shows Madigan walking down the street, chased by a pack of attendees and other reporters — who were tipped by DEFCON prior to the game — filming her, snapping photos, and generally asking her questions in a manner somewhat akin to “Dateline’s NBC’s” hidden-camera hit “To Catch a Predator.”
Considering Defcon’s general attitude of granting attendees passes without having to undergo thorough background checks, it would seem that hiding her identity would have been easier for Madigan at Defcon than any other tech conference in the nation.
“The whole nature of Defcon is you don’t need to show up with five credit cards and 13 friends who will vouch for you,” Enderle noted.
As far as the feds go, few seem to understand what NBC really hoped to gain for its story.
“Most of the law enforcement folks are there to learn, not necessarily to arrest anybody,” Enderle said.
Of course, if they identify a hacker with a particular skill when a crime does occur, they would more likely be able to track down the hacker — having learned something from him or her at the conference, he added.