When hackers get caught breaking into systems, they face jail time. What happens when a reporter gets caught sneaking into a hackers' conference? It's not pretty, as Michelle Madigan, an associate producer for NBC's Dateline show, learned firsthand on Friday at Defcon 15, the annual hackers' convention held in Las Vegas.
According to senior Defcon staffers, conference organizers were alerted that Dateline was sending five undercover reporters to the conference. Their aim: Get attendees to admit to criminal hacking activity, then confront Defcon founder Jeff Moss about running a confab that facilitates crime. Organizers say Madigan told an attendee that she wanted to film a federal agent going onstage.
According to press reports, Defcon staff members said that they offered Madigan a press badge but she insisted on being able to film attendees secretly. Defcon conference rules require journalists to identify themselves and to get permission from subjects before photographing. Instead of agreeing to those terms, Madigan purchased a standard attendee badge.
Staffers followed her and observed her secretly filming with a purse camera. "We saw her go into the bathroom and wire herself up with a camera," according to "Priest," a senior staffer for the conference. Security personnel reportedly observed her using a camera hidden in her purse.
Stinging the Stinger
Madigan was not quietly escorted from the conference by security. Instead, in high hacker style, Defcon staffers opted for a full-blown sting. At a trumped-up "Spot the Fed" session -- a longtime standard of the conference -- Moss was brought up on stage to introduce a new contest.
"So here's the concept of the contest," he said, as documented on a video available on YouTube. "You're at a big hacking convention and we all understand that trust is a big part of our underground, real-life, and computer security scene. ... It came to our attention that it could be that a reporter could be here with a hidden pinhole camera -- not as press -- recording people for a piece on hiring hackers."
Moss continued: "I'm not cool with that, especially when they turn down the chance to get a press pass. So I need a show of hands on a new contest, Spot the Undercover Reporter."
As the crowd booed and got ugly, Madigan quickly left the room. "We like to know when we're speaking to a member of the press," Moss called after her. "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."
That press badge raises questions for longtime journalist Dan Gillmor, who has written for the San Jose Mercury News. While the press badge carried restrictions, it appears that the regular attendee badge did not. "The question I have is, was everyone promising not to blog?"
Presumably, that was not the case, as the unofficial Defcon FAQ indicates that attendees are free to take pictures, although they run the risk of unwilling subjects becoming violent.
"If there was one rule for attendees and another for press, then it's meaningless to put restrictions on the press," Gillmor said. "If this person were able to attend as a regular attendee, the distinction is meaningless."
Defcon's strategy of public exposure and humiliation "doesn't make anybody look that good," he added. When asked of Madigan's behavior, Gillmor said, "I'm not a big fan of journalists lying in general. There are occasions when it may be justified. But it's hard to think that this rises to that level."