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To catch an undercover journalist

Ever wonder what happens when “hard-hitting, investigative journalism” goes bad?

Dateline reporter Michelle Madigan found that outfirsthand when she attempted to go undercover at Defcon, a computer hacker convention in Las Vegas. The convention, for obvious reasons, has very strict rules about filming and recording. That didn’t deter Madigan, who snuck in a concealed video camera, determined to find some nice, incriminating footage of hackers discussing their trade. Just to state the obvious: It’s always a good idea to try and go undercover in a convention hall full of people who are experts at finding information you don’t want them to have.

If this sounds a little sketchy, it’s par for the course for Dateline. The broadcast news program also runs the popular “To Catch a Predator” series, which entraps, humiliates and arrests pedophiles on national television. Not that I have a lot of sympathy for pedophiles, but as former OC editor Tyler Graf argued in the Daily Emerald, journalists should not be in the business of law enforcement.

Anyways, Madigan’s ruse was (surprise) short-lived. She did not know this, of course, until one of the convention directors approached the podium and announced a new contest called “spot the undercover reporter.” Madigan quickly vamoosed, followed by a large group of hackers who decided to play paparazzi. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet (a vast series of tubes, from what I understand), you can watch the whole thing on YouTube. I think if you look up “poetic justice” in the dictionary, this is what you find.

One point that bears noting is that Madigan was asked four timesif she was a journalist and denied it. Now, a lot of hardnose reporters will say that, like cops, they’re not obliged to announce their profession unless directly asked, but I’m willing to bet very few would advocate lying about it. It’s not just an ethical thing; you could get in some serious trouble if your cover is blown. Lucky for Madigan, she was only covering a bunch of pasty, computer geeks and not a mafia meeting, although I’m sure her MySpace profile and Flickr account are now clearing houses for tentacle porn.

For more of the broadcast media’s obsession with clandestine computer groups, you should educate yourself on the dangers of truly epic lulz.

  1. Vincent. says:

    Any tr00 h4x0r would’ve figured out the game was up from the get-go and just started boasting about frag counts in Doom, or whatever it is the kids are playing these days.

  2. CJ Ciaramella says:

    Yeah, the Wired article has some information that makes the story even more ironic. It turns out the DefCon planners were on to Madigan before she even showed up because they have a mole at Dateline. In other words, DefCon out-moled Dateline’s mole. Wasn’t that the plot of The Departed or something?

    Also, I wrote in my post that Madigan denied being a journalist four times, which isn’t exactly true. She was offered a press pass four times, twice by phone and twice at the convention, and refused. Jesus, you’d think she would have figured out they were on to her after the second time.
    “Are you sure you don’t want a press pass, Mrs. Definitely-not-an-undercover-reporter-from-Dateline (wink wink)?”

  3. T says:

    “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”

    So says the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Now, I’m not opposed to breaking the SPJ’s codes from time to time, but it’s clear that Madigan wanted to smear the convention and the only way to do this was through surreptitious means. Too bad she was an idiot, and too bad she works for a crap, lowest common denominator program for middle brow idiots. I hope she gets fired.

  4. Sho says:

    Note that in this Wired article, Madigan was invited to the Spot the Fed contest, and she was supposedly eager to out an undercover federal agent at Defcon. Spot the Fed is a good-natured game where attendees point out people they think are undercover agents, and where the revealed feds usually don’t mind being outed (Incidentally, a friend of mine from high school won a Defcon t-shirt when she outed a undercover agent from the Navy. She noticed he was wearing penny loafers, among other non-hackerish apparel.) Of course, that’s where the tables were turned on Madigan.

  5. Vincent. says:

    MICHELLE MADIGAN: 0MG j00 hav0r 7h4 1337 ju4r3z???????????
    DEFCON ATTENDEE: Are you an undercover reporter?
    Madigan: L0LZ n00b.
    Defcon: Uh… so what are you doing with that hidden microphone?
    Madigan: h4x0ring j00r s4x0r. PWND.
    Defcon: Excuse me?
    Madigan: 3y3 h4x0r j00r k3rn31, n00b!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Defcon: Er… I don’t think you belong here. Are you sure you’re not a journalist?
    Madigan: d0nu7 fux0r w17h m3 3y3 kn0w lunax 0p3r471ng 5y573m!
    Defcon: You mean Linux? Seriously. What are you doing here?
    Madigan: f0rk 0-day ju4r3z 3y3 w1ll tr4d3 sh3ll on g00d pr0n FTP!!
    Defcon: Alright. I’m pretty sure you’re a reporter. What, did you hang out on IRC for an hour and write down all the lingo or something? Do you even know what you’re talking about?
    Madigan: *runs*

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