Undercover TV producer booted from DefCon

Dateline NBC Producer Michelle Madigan fled from the DefCon conference Friday after she was caught reporting undercover

It's a story of betrayal worthy of an episode of Dateline NBC.

Dateline NBC Producer Michelle Madigan was publicly outed at the DefCon security conference in Las Vegas Friday after show organizers were tipped off that she was trying to film show attendees with a hidden camera.

Madigan ran from the show after organizers publicly threatened to escort her from the event at the beginning of a 4 p.m. conference session by noted hacker HD Moore. "She literally kicked the door open," said "Priest," a show official who declined to be identified. "She made the mistake of running. Had she taken it like an adult, she would have been treated with kid gloves, treated with respect."

Instead she left as DefCon organizer "Dark Tangent" (Jeff Moss) taunted her from the stage.

"It came to our attention that a reporter might be here with a hidden pinhole camera," Moss told the crowd. He said that he had two options: to let her corner some 13-year-old and get him to admit to hacking, or to escort her away.

Amidst clapping and cries of "burn the witch," from the crowd, Madigan left the building.

The Dateline NBC producer continued out to a nearby parking lot, surrounded by a small crowd of show attendees and media, talking briefly on her mobile phone and not saying anything to the gathering crowd.

Madigan was apparently already aware that her cover had been blown.

Show organizers had been warning attendees all day of Madigan's presence and had repeatedly asked her if she would register as press, Priest said.

And another show volunteer, who declined to be identified, said she had even admitted that she was videotaping the conference, telling him, "I have to go into the bathroom and put on my hidden camera," he said.

Cameras of any kind are a strict no-no at the show, which bills itself as a gathering for hackers, both legitimate, and not-so-legitimate, and takes special steps to ensure the privacy of its attendees. The show keeps no list of attendees, except for press and speakers, and there's only one way to get in the door: paying US$100 cash.

Show organizers believe that Madigan had been looking to talk to hackers and federal agents, possibly with the intention of drawing attention to the fact that federal agents participate in a show whose attendees are known to skirt the law. "My guess is that she wanted a splash piece along the lines of, 'We have a whole bunch of people who are criminals. We have federal agents here as well,'" Priest said.

Priest, who would only say that he worked in the "government" sector, said that the Dateline segment could have put federal agents at the show at risk by exposing their identities.

Show attendee Michael Bender said that attendees could get into trouble with their employers if it was known that they attended the show. "We're talking about people's livelihoods," said Bender, a teacher at a Wisconsin technical college

DefCon organizers identified Madigan after being tipped off by her associates, who Priest declined to name. After the incident, Priest showed reporters a complete dossier on Madigan, which included a photograph, phone number, job title and social security number. He would not say how he obtained it.

Dateline NBC could not be reached for comment.

DefCon's Moss said that he's concerned that the Dateline producers may have been trying to sensationalize the conference, thus undermining the show's goal of fostering a free exchange of ideas. "We researched them online and we see (the show's producers) do hit and run pieces," he said. "It's not actually research and news. It's just sensationalistic nonsense. And that makes us nervous."

Media and bloggers have gone undercover at DefCon in the past, but nobody of the stature of NBC has ever tried this, Moss said.

"I'm concerned that some impressionable kid... is just going to get cornered and is going to start bragging about stuff," he said. "The next thing you know, he's on nightly news."

DefCon runs through Sunday at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

(Erik Larkin of PC World contributed to this story.)

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