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8/6/2007
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DefCon's Moss: Undercover Reporter Damages 'Neutral Zone'

An undercover associate producer from NBC's Dateline tried to surreptitiously videotape hackers and federal agents at last Friday's conference, until she was outed and fled the building.

The founder of DefCon says the undercover reporter who infiltrated the conference late last week posing as a regular attendee did more than lie to people and break the rules.

The woman who was outed at the beginning of a late afternoon DefCon session in Las Vegas last Friday actually poses a risk to the neutral zone that Jeff Moss -- a.k.a. "Dark Tangent" -- worked for years to create. Moss said in an interview that DefCon has become a meeting place for security researchers, federal prosecutors, and investigators from the likes of FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense.

"When I started DefCon, I openly invited everybody -- Secret Service, FBI, hackers, prosecutors. I wanted to develop a big open forum for exchange," said Moss. "As the attackers have become more organized -- organized criminals and nation states -- the good guys and the feds are trying to get a handle on what the bad guys are up to. DefCon is a way to look into the crystal ball and see what criminal hackers are working on. If you ruin that trust, who wants to be the one who is demonized? If there's a hidden camera, they're not going to want to share information openly. It's very easy when you're dealing with hackers to sensationalize it. It's kind of voodoo."

Having undercover reporters getting information surreptitiously or putting federal agents' pictures on television could be greatly damaging to the neutral zone.

"There's a lot of private discussion here," Moss added. "A lot of people ask researchers how liable certain attacks are, how fast things can spread. And the feds are constantly asked for help from the audience... The vast majority of attendees are feds and white-hat hackers. If you're a criminal, you don't go where all the feds and good guys are going."

Michelle Madigan, an associate producer with Dateline NBC, went to DefCon, not as a recognized member of the press, but as a regular attendee. This was against DefCon's strict rules that call for all members of the press to be duly recognized. Armed with a video camera hidden in a purse with holes cut away for the lens, Madigan allegedly was out to work on a story titled "Hiring Hackers," according to Moss.

Moss said they had been tipped off that someone from Dateline, which is well known for its "To Catch a Predator" series of reports on child molesters, was going to DefCon undercover, so they were on the watch for her. Once they realized who she was, Moss noted that different DefCon staffers approached her and offered her a press badge several different times but she turned them down.

The DefCon founder said he was worried about Dateline's "hit-and-run entrapment" kind of work. "We were concerned she was going to find some underage kid or someone and ask if they could break into her Hotmail account or something foolish," he added. "And she'd keep trying until she found someone who said something stupid. At what point do we try to stop the shenanigans?"

Moss did put a stop to it at an afternoon session, which people had purposefully steered Madigan toward. In a session that was videotaped by freelance blogger Elizabeth Safran and posted on YouTube, Moss took the stage and told the audience that there was an undercover reporter in their midst. There were instant boos and commotion. Saying he thought they should play "spot the undercover reporter," Moss then told them someone from Dateline was in the audience. As people shouted things like "tar and feather 'em," Madigan made a hasty retreat out of the room and then out of the building.

But she wasn't alone. The outed reporter was trailed by a vociferous crowd of attendees and other reporters who tossed questions at her and heckled her until she got into her car and drove away.

"If she wanted to come back as press, we'll give her a press badge," Moss said as Madigan headed out the door. "I don't know if she heard that or didn't care [because I had] just ruined her whole undercover thing."

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