Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Run Away!

There is a mythology to hacking. The public's idea of what a hacker is comes from a mixture of bad movie stereotypes and alarmist news reports. In the mind of the average person, a hacker can destroy your credit rating and steal your bank account merely by thinking hard. Given this, it's not surprising that many people are afraid of hackers.

To be sure, there are hackers who do bad things but, in truth, your average hacker is simply someone who is a) technologically savvy and b) deeping interested in understanding how things work. Hackers love to take apart systems and security systems are a favorite of hackers simply because they pose the best challenges.

In truth, most hackers aren't malicious and the the bulk of the danger on the internet isn't from hackers. Right now, the biggest online threat that the average person faces is identity theft, but most identity thieves rely on fairly low-tech cons (such as phishing for information) that require a level of skill that any decent hacker would consider to be beneath him.

Those hackers that are into thievery are usually more interested in bigger targets such as sensitive corporate data; however, your average hacker would rather be employed by security firms than risking their freedom by breaking federal laws.

Be that as it may, the media loves a story that can scare their audience and what's more scary to a technologically illiterate viewer than an entire convention of hackers? Thus, Dateline NBC decided to send an undercover agent to DEFCON 2007.

DEFCON is a convention of hackers. It should be emphasized that this isn't some sort of secret convention. DEFCON is well publicized and the organizers offer press badges to any reporting who would like to cover the event. It is also no secret that federal agents like to attend, too... so that they can talk to the attendees and learn what sort of cutting edge security risks have been exposed by them.

Dateline wasn't satisfied with this. They were sure that if they send a reporter in with a hidden camera, they'd be able to get some of the attendees to say things that were incriminating (or, at the very least, "scary"). Now the thing about hackers is that they aren't stupid. These are very smart people who think very hard about security. They aren't the sort of folks who are going to be fooled by weak attempts to sneak a camera into their convention.

Naturally, the organizers figured out what was going on and decided to have a bit of fun. They announced a contest to "spot the undercover reporter". The goal was simply to show her than her antics weren't going to be tolerated. They gave the audience the option of having her escorted out or of giving her a press pass so that should could continue to report on the convention, only without any illusions that she was going to trick anyone into exposing themselves. The audience opted to have her escorted out but, even then, the organizers said that she could return once she had obtained a press pass. She quickly exited the hall, followed by about a hundred and fifty people videotaping her and mocking her.

I want to be clear about this: I think that undercover investigation has a legitimate place in journalism and I've been dismayed by the fact that the courts have decided that corporations can claim violations of their right to privacy when reporters use hidden cameras in their investigations. However, at the same time, I think that sensationalism hurts the cause of legitimate journalism. Dateline wasn't trying to expose a legitimate threat to the public; they were trying to appeal to the technophobia of their audience. As such, I am glad that the tables were turned, especially given that the only damage that was done to the reporter was a bit of public embarrassment (and, to be sure, I think that the people following her and taunting her were being more than a bit childish).

Here is a video of the incident.

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