Saturday, August 04, 2007

Spot the Journalist

I used to have a great cartoon by Bob Boze Bell hanging on my cubicle wall when I worked at the newspaper. It was titled So You Think You Belong in Journalism? and then proceeded to lampoon everything about the profession from the long hours and low paw to the enormous ego involved in thinking you can write to the truly horrible wardrobe of most newspaper people ("What's the difference between a working journalist and a hobo? Hobos have better taste in pants.")

But even that classic cartoon couldn't top reality and the "new" journalism called "investigative reporting." As I said in this post, people know what "investigative reporting" means. It means the reporter's about to drop a sack of flaming shit on somebody's doorstep and claim they are doing it in the interest of "the public."

Dateline NBC has made a career out of this sort of "journalism" with its To Catch a Predator series. I'm all for catching child molesters and child porn thugs, but I sort of agree with Brian Montopoli who says this is a form of punishment before trial.

But now, the tables have been turned on a Dateline NBC mole at DefCon.

DefCon security on Friday warned attendees at the annual hacker conference that Dateline NBC may have sent a mole with a hidden camera to the event to capture hackers admitting to crimes. DefCon says it was tipped off by their own mole at Dateline who sent them a pic of the undercover journalist who DefCon employees identified as producer Michelle Madigan.

DefCon, an annual underground hacking convention in Las Vegas, has a strict policy against filming conference attendees -- TV media outlets are barred from sweeping a room with their cameras and also have to get permission from any individuals before capturing them on film. All journalists covering DefCon sign an agreement upon registering for the conference that outlines the rules, but the DefCon organizers say the mole apparently registered as a regular attendee, thereby bypassing the legal agreement.

The mole's name is Michelle Madigan. The best part is the way they caught the mole.
According to DefCon staff, Madigan had told someone she wanted to out an undercover federal agent at DefCon. That person in turn warned DefCon about Madigan's plans. Federal law enforcement agents from FBI, DoD, United States Postal Inspection Service and other agencies regularly attend DefCon to gather intelligence on the latest techniques of hackers. DefCon holds an annual contest called Spot the Fed, in which attendees out people in the audience they think are undercover federal agents. The contest is good-natured, but the feds who get caught are generally ones who don't mind getting caught.

DefCon staff say that Madigan was asked four times -- two times on the phone and two times at the conference -- if she wanted to obtain press credentials, but she declined.

DefCon staff lured her to a large hall telling her that the Spot the Fed contest was in session and that she could get a picture of an undercover federal agent at the contest. When she sat down, Jeff Moss, DefCon's founder, announced that they were changing the game. Instead of Spot the Fed, they were going to play Spot the Undercover Reporter and then announced, "And there's one in here right now." Madigan, realizing she'd been had, jumped from her seat and bolted out the door with reporters carrying cameras chasing after her through the parking lot and to her car.

I wonder if Madigan liked the treatment Dateline NBC thinks is appropriate for others.