Hackers Turn the Tables on Dateline NBC


According to conference staff, Michelle Madigan had registered as a non-press attendee in an attempt to covertly collect footage for a story on the hackers and government agents who attend the yearly conference. They, however, had already been tipped off by a contact inside NBC long before she arrived, and had prepared a dossier on Ms. Madigan, complete with her photograph and social security number.

While Defcon organizers don't shy from media coverage, their press policy does reflect the extremely high priority some attendees place on privacy issues. Journalists are required to have a press badge visible at all times while at the event, and are required to follow strict rules with respect to cameras and recording devices.

According to Defcon founder Jeff Moss, his staff spotted Madigan before she entered the event, and offered her the opportunity to register as press on at least four occasions. After she refused, event staff made several announcements warning attendees that an undercover reporter was present.

When she attended the event nonetheless, Moss and his team decided to lure Madigan into a well-attended session by passing her information to the effect that it would be preceded by a game of "Spot the Fed," a traditional friendly competition between government agents and other Defcon attendees. Once she was in the conference hall, Moss took the stage.

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"Sure we all have our secrets, sure we all hide stuff from each other, but here, I kind of like to make things be really out in the open," he told the assembled crowd. "It came to our attention that it could be that there are people here under false identities, pretending to be something they're not. It came to our attention that a reporter might be here with a hidden pinhole camera, not as press, recording people for a piece on hiring hackers. I'm not cool with that, especially when they turn down the opportunity to get a press badge. So, I need a show of hands for a new contest, 'Spot the Undercover Reporter'."

"OK, well, the reporter's in the room, and I think we'll be escorting her away for false pretenses. We don't mean you any harm. It's just like, we want to know when we're talking to the press. That's the purpose of a press badge. If you'd like to wear a press badge, you're welcome back. Otherwise, please go home," he concluded.

Madigan, however, had bolted from the room before Moss had finished. A crowd of reporters and attendees followed her as she hurried from the Riviera hotel and drove away. Moss told CMP Channel that she later tried to contact him by phone, but that he had been unavailable.

NBC could not be reached for comment.

Several Defcon staffers argued that Madigan's efforts to remain suggested that she intended to create a sensationalized "hit piece" on the event. Others were particularly concerned because many younger attendees often exaggerate their technical abilities or concoct stories about fictious criminal exploits. "One option is wait until they corner some 13-year-old kid and get him to admit he can hack Russia with his PSP (PlayStation Portable), and they put him up on NBC," said Moss. "Or, you just escort her off for not wearing a press badge."

It remains unclear whether Madigan was investigating the event alone or as part of a planned Dateline expose. Several attendees commented that Madigan's efforts reflected a lack of planning and understanding of the event.

"Don't get me wrong, we've got clueless people here just like anywhere else, but there are also a lot of really smart, paranoid people at Defcon," said one witness to Madigan's "outing." "We all knew she was coming, and she came anyway. Someone just didn't think through what it means to piss off a few thousand hackers."