Something uncomfortable about DEFCON's treatment of Dateline NBC reporter

Something uncomfortable about DEFCON's treatment of Dateline NBC reporter

Summary: I don't know about you but after watching the video and reading the reports about DefCon's outing of Dateline NBC producer Michelle Madigan, I came away with an uncomfortable feeling that it was rather childish, over-the-top and unnecessary.

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TOPICS: Hardware, Security
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I don't know about you but after watching the video and reading the reports (George Ou, Techmeme, Threat Level) about DEFCON's outing of Dateline NBC producer Michelle Madigan, I came away with an uncomfortable feeling that it was rather childish, over-the-top and unnecessary.

For starters, there's the irony of underground hackers preaching about rules and trust. Please. What's so criminal about going undercover to get a news story? Hackers at this conference take great pride in doing man-in-the-middle password hijacks for Wall of Sheep giggles. DEFCON folks routinely commandeer Las Vegas television displays, ATM screens and hotel TV networks. Suddenly, OMG, a female TV reporter with a camera rigged into her handbag is a terrorist on wheels.

We're talking about an entire sub-culture built on exactly what Madigan did -- breaking the rules. This is an industry that celebrates the the ignoring of EULAs, encourages social-engineering (pretexting) and basks in the glory of sticking it to the man. Yes, law-breaking in the hacking world is romanticized.

So then, was it really necessary for DEFCON organizer Jeff Moss, a guy who is usually even-keeled and unruffled, to trigger a mob frenzy to get Madigan tossed from his conference?

The back story is that DEFCON was tipped off to Madigan's plans to use a hidden camera to interview hackers for (this is where it gets really bizarre) for a story that would have exposed people admitting to hacking crimes.

Moss, who also runs CMP's Black Hat conference, openly admits that his staff negotiated several times with Madigan to come clean by using a press pass. Show organizers were part of the plans to lure her to a packed hall where Moss would point her out, leading to "burn the witch" chants and a scary chasing of the female reporter through the parking lot.

Reporters were pre-briefed on the plans so they could get photographers in place for the ruckus. All this planning for a public spectacle seems so needless when Moss and his team could have simply walked up to Madigan quietly and have her expelled for violating the show rules.

What if Madigan had gotten hurt by some maladjusted person? Would Moss have accepted responsibility? These conferences are built on borderline anarchy so save me the preaching about ethics and trust.

Even more strange was the gleeful hand clapping by the bloggers and reporters who covered Madigan's misfortune (Dan Goodin's "scurries like a cockroach" tagline was among the nicer ones I've seen). Today it's Madigan, tomorrow it may be you.

Topics: Hardware, Security

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  • Standards of her profession

    The standards of the hacker world aren't relevant in this case, the standards of the reporter world are. She apparently didn't do too good in living up to the standards for undercover reporting and still persisted in her efforts after being identified multiple times.

    Maybe they were a bit harsh in the end but if in fact one of her missions was to "out an undercover federal agent" then we should be glad they shut her down.
    Robert Crocker
    • BULL !!!

      "The standards of the hacker world aren't relevant in this case." Bullshat, the so called "standards" is exactlly what the reporter was trying to capture on film.
      No_Ax_to_Grind
      • Good point

        [i]the so called "standards" is exactlly what the reporter was trying to capture on film[/i]
        John Zern
      • Actually, I'd suggest

        That this reporter was less interested in reporting on the standards of the hacker world than cherry picking conversations to illustrate the preconceived ideas she had when she walked into the convention. As we've seen in the past with "investigative reporters" when the evidence to support their idea doesn't exist they aren't adverse to just making it up or editing the tape to make it show what they feel it should have shown in the first place. All we need to do is look at some of the 60 Minutes investigative reports of the past where they've lost their shirts in court due to creative editing. Heck, just look at Rather's last big story and the lengths he went to show the conclusion he'd already reached before he started "investigating". Sorry, but this reporter/sleaze merchant got what she deserved. Don't get me wrong investigative reporting is a good thing as long as the report is investigating not manufacturing "evidence" of a preconceived conclusion.
        maldain
      • Wipe your mouth.

        Work with your attitude and stop cussing.
        Grayson Peddie
        • Who

          f***ing made you mother here? STFU! ]:)
          Linux User 147560
      • Your mixed up. Badly

        The standards of each profession or occupation have to stand on their own. When the legal system deals with thieves and murderers we don't say; that because the criminals are so nasty we have to allow the authorities to act in anything close to a similar fashion so its easier to deal with the criminals.

        I have nothing against a reporter doing some undercover work to get an interesting story, on the other hand it has to be accepted as an occupational hazard that in the case where the reporter is discovered, or outed in some fashion they have to expect some level of possible embarrassment in the process. You have to get real about the situation, it hardly matters who it is spying on who; getting caught doing it almost always results in some degree of humiliation.

        Its not as if hackers and such are traditionally famous for being understanding of others spying on them. In fact there are not too many other groups who would be as proud to keep "spy's" out of their business. Kind of like the C.I.A. follow? They see themselves as the ones doing the spying, and hence that means keeping the "uninvited others" out of their business.
        Cayble
    • hmm

      [i]The standards of the hacker world aren't relevant in this case, the standards of the reporter world are.[/i]

      Actually, both are relevant.

      [i]Maybe they were a bit harsh in the end but if in fact one of her missions was to "out an undercover federal agent" then we should be glad they shut her down.[/i]

      I think that was a concern over her (not so) "undercover" reporting, not an intent of it.
      Badgered
    • She did try to out a Fed

      The reason she came to that auditorium was because she was told that they were going to do a "spot the Fed" contest and she was going to get some secret video footage of it. For that reason alone, she should have been tossed out.
      georgeou
      • Source?

        What's your source for such a definitive statement on her intent?

        _ryan
        Ryan Naraine
        • source?

          Umm, the fact that she works for Dateline NBC? That pretty much assures none of her intentions were virtuous.

          I was sitting in the talk she was ousted from, and believe me it wasn't as bad as the video makes it sound, that's why she was just walking away. They were fair in their actions, and stopped a mis-informative shock news agency from creating undue problems.
          @...
    • Just another sensationalist reporter

      This reporter was just another sensationalist out for a few juicy soundbites.

      If she had truly been interested in "documenting the standards" of the participants at Defcon, she could have registered {like all the other journalists} and taken notes. Notes. You know ... what journalists did before they had cameras to point and autohyping voice-over insert software?

      But no ... she wanted to take a video.

      Why? Well ... the name of the session was "spot the fed". It was expected to contain that some interesting revelations. That's what she wanted to tape, nevermind the rest of the conference.

      And nevermind what half-witted prosecution were to descend afterwards onto anyone she caught on film making. Half-witted prosecution? What? In the US?

      Unfortunately the attitudes of the current adminstration seem indistinguishable from small-town vindictiveness. White House staff "leaking" the name of a CIA officer to "get at" her husband who made unwelcome noises? Former defence secretary Rumsfeld "accidentally" mentioning the name of the Abu-Ghraib whistleblower on television? Climate research scientists seeing their funding cut off if they dare to subscribe to politically inconvenient views?

      So what could one expect to happen to any Federal empoyee who e.g. comes out with stories about the terminal sloppiness and incompetence of passwording government computers?

      Good riddance I'd say.
      Golodh2
    • A member of the press speaks...

      Journalists have a code of ethics that they adhere to that helps to promote the safety of the journalist.

      The stuff outside the conference was a little too much--Ms. Safran was likely told that this was her job and didn't really have much to say about the decision (which happens far too often for anyone's liking--except for the editors). However, there are at least three violations of journalistic ethics here, and I say she and her team deserved what they got (harsh as it was, nobody really got hurt).

      1) They were offered journalistic credentials in the form of a press pass and THEY refused. This is because they wanted to do undercover work. The ethic that I was taught was that you have to try to get the story normally first. If they'd had a normal news crew there, this would not have been an issue. If she was there to "out an undercover federal agent" then she should have notified one of the people responsible for the convention. The claim is suspect because of this.

      2) She failed identify herself once she was discovered. They had to pull it out of her. This compounds her first ethical violation. I've heard of reporters being killed because of this.

      3) She called someone else for instructions. In an undercover job, if things go bad, you need backup on the spot. There should have been a plan in place for if and when the people at DEFCON (who typically know more about undercover equipment than the people operating it--let's face it, real hackers can hack more than computers) discovered her, she should have had a complete plan including an exit strategy. She was ALONE. This means that had things turned violent, she would have been unable to do anything about it.

      But she did do a few things right.

      Her company claimed to be doing a story on "hiring hackers" which could have been true. However, she didn't try to badger the other people there, and she didn't try to talk back to them or bandy with them, and she didn't do anything that could have been construed as posing a further threat.

      She did to the right thing in simply leaving. She was embarrassed enough at being caught, so why further this kind of humiliation? I mean, come on, guys, teasing her and humiliating her all the way to her car was not called for.

      She didn't ask for the equipment back. This opens the door for her to start legal action against people who took it, though there is an unwritten rule that people who capture surveillance devices used against them can claim them. This is not, however, borne out by law. I hope the equipment (sans video) was returned.

      And I hate to say it, the childish antics there are par for the course for most of the hackers I know. They made fun of her... big deal. They humiliated her to discourage her from similar antics again. But above everything else, they didn't hurt her, and this is one reason that my editor has considered sending one of /our/ reporters to DEFCON (er... but we're going to ask for a press pass, okay guys?).

      And now for an analysis of her emotional state:

      When you're caught doing something like that, you're embarrassed. Supremely. Adding insult to injury doesn't apply, because there was no injury, but it showed a real lack of class on the part of the people who bullied her (yes, schoolyard bullying, plain and simple). This embarrassment crossed the line into humiliation at that point. And further, the videos posted online are just a little too far.

      I'm not one for censorship. In fact, as a member of the Pirate Party of Utah, I'm firmly against it. I'm also against the invasion of privacy perpetrated by Ms. Safran. I'm also against the way her dignity has been trashed. People deserve respect, even people who are doing things like that. Once she was outside, they should have told her to leave, watched to make sure she got into her car and left, and ended it there. The belittling and demeaning treatment was going too far, even if she did violate privacy.
      RedHeron
      • Correction...

        I was looking at the video and incorrectly attributed the name, mostly without thinking about it, even though I knew who I was supposed to be saying.

        Sorry, Madigan.

        And anyone else who noticed my "woops"
        RedHeron
  • Defcon

    she's a reporter, why should anyone care? when was the last time a reporter or somebody in the media gave a damn about ethics or anything else.
    kphipps@...
    • The exact same can be said of the hackers <nt>

      .
      Badgered
      • Hardly . . .

        Many of the people at this conference are 'White Hat' types who hack the software, then turn their findings over to security and OS firms, so they can fix their software BEFORE it gets hijacked by someone with intent to do harm . . .
        JLHenry
        • Quite right

          [i]Many of the people at this conference are 'White Hat' types who hack the software, then turn their findings over to security and OS firms, so they can fix their software BEFORE it gets hijacked by someone with intent to do harm . . .[/i]

          Some are. Some are not.
          Badgered
  • Hardly likely...

    to happen to me or most other people as we would not have been at such a place attempting to do some illegal, undercover "expose" piece trying to get someone to confess on camera to one or more crimes.

    I think that what happened was perfectly fine. They didn't do anything other than show her for what she was and since she'd been approached to be 'above board' their exposing her was certainly justified.

    Your point about her potentially being harmed by some malcontent or sociopath is a real fishing trip. If someone choses to take some kind of harmful action against another person, THEY are responsible for their actions not some organization that exposed a reporter for attempting to do something that the organization forbade.
    Technocrat@...
    • What a stupid statement.

      There was NOTHING illegal about the reporters actions or what weas planned. Its called investigative reporting.
      No_Ax_to_Grind