How an undercover NBC reporter was outed by hackers

A "Dateline" producer tried to cover the annual DEFCON convention with a hidden camera. Needless to say, she didn't get very far.

Published August 6, 2007 4:48PM (EDT)

The BlackHat and DEFCON hacker gatherings that occur every year in Las Vegas would seem ripe for televised national pillorying. The security experts who attend, after all, discuss such seemingly unmentionable subjects as how easily you can pick the locks in the White House; why Al Qaeda videos aren't real; and how to break into Gmail. Hackers point out the vulnerabilities in an effort to bolster security -- but TV reporters can be a little dull to such nuance.

And so it was that one such reporter, Michelle Madigan of the NBC News show "Dateline," attempted on Friday to use a hidden camera to record the assembled hackers' seedy ways. Let me say that again: Madigan tried to go undercover in a group of people whose M.O. is breaking secrets. Needless to say, she didn't get very far at all.

As George Ou, the IT blogger over at ZDNet tells the story, Madigan registered as an ordinary DEFCON attendee despite repeated efforts by conference organizers to get her to use a press pass. She wasn't even very secretive about her efforts: She told one conference organizer that she was going to the bathroom to set up her hidden camera, and a DEFCON staffer spotted her sauntering around a conference room covertly recording folks playing the traditional DEFCON hacker game "capture the flag."

Ou writes that when "a DEFCON staffer spoke to Madigan posing as regular attendee, Madigan commented that people in Kansas ... would be very interested in what was 'really' going on in DEFCON."

But then something funny really happened at DEFCON. During one session, organizers launched a surprise game of "spot the undercover reporter." Someone in the room, they told the audience, was secretly taping the rest of them.

At that, Madigan ran from the room -- and a crowd of DEFCONers followed her, cameras set to record.

So rather than go on any more with the story, it's probably best to just run the tape:

Update: Also, be sure to check out Kim Zetter's Threat Level post; she got the story first.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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