Computer Hackers Share Their Secrets

One of the speakers at last week's Hackers on Planet Earth conference was carted away by FBI agents for allegedly impersonating a federal officer while tracking down a government informant. Private investigator Steven Rombom (a.k.a. Rambam), owner of an online investigative service and a Nazi hunter, never got to lead his panel discussion entitled, "Privacy is Dead ... Get Over It."

Appropriately, Rombom was scheduled to demonstrate how he dug up -- in just four hours of searching of private and public databases -- more than 500 pages worth of info on conference attendee Rick Dakan. "All I gave him was my email and name," Dakan told the panel, which carried on with the remaining three private investigators, Kelly Riddle, Jerry Keenan and Reggie Montgomery.

"He knew everywhere I'd lived, every car I had driven, and even someone else in Alabama who was using my Social Security number since 1983. He found all my friends, pictures of friends, and he knew about my brother's criminal history." Conference organizers, who days later hosted Rombom on Wednesday's "Off the Hook" radio show, speculated that Rombom might not have impersonated a federal agent, but was arrested for coming too close to locating an informant the feds were trying to protect.

Spies don't have the real information

"Here's the problem with American intelligence," former CIA spook Robert Steele told a boisterous late-night crowd of 1,000 or so computer hackers, phone phreaks, activists, fellow spooks and other curious folks from all corners of the globe. "Spies only know secrets. Reality and the real information out there, they don't know." Just to dispel any notion that we've traded privacy for safety post 9/11.

Between fielding cheers, thanks and accusations that he's a double agent exploiting credulous young idealists, Steele regaled the audience of the sixth Hackers on Planet Earth conference into the early Sunday morning hours. "We need an intelligence agency that gets down and dirty, and makes contact on the ground. But the CIA doesn't do diarrhea. Closest thing they could have had was that dumb ass Johnny Walker Lindh, and he wasn't even an agent."

Steele knows his stuff. He's spent most of his life overseas listening to why people hate America, and according to conference organizer BernieS, he fingered Scooter Libby in the Plame case at HOPE 2004, well before the investigation started. A strong current of self-protection and preservation ran through the gathering of the tribes, and the sessions, which ran literally nonstop from Friday morning to Sunday night, included exploiting security flaws in wiretaps, tinkering in the lock-picking village, and even hacking coupons which, when you think about it, said big-box economist Sam Pocker, "are just free money wrapped in semantics."

University of Pennsylvania researcher and rabble-rouser Matt Blaze and his grad students Micah Sherr, Eric Cronin and Sandy Clark laid down their methods of foiling law enforcement agencies' eavesdropping -- like playing a low-volume "C-tone" over the wire, thus confusing the eavesdropper into thinking the phone is on the hook and preventing audio from being recorded, and by conjuring up false call activity and dialed digits.

"We're surely not the first to figure out how to foil wiretaps. We've seen transcripts of court cases, one mafia case in particular, where there were inexplicable dropouts in the calls," said Blaze. "Our long-term goal is to build networks that block eavesdropping, and that can more effectively be eavesdropped on."

"The judicial process isn't about justice, it's about winning the case. And a lot of things we learn in life -- logic, fairness, common sense -- aren't even in the equation," said BernieS at the Hackers in Prison panel (Bernie has been hacking telephones and computers, and blowing the covers of Secret Service agents for years). He and fellow former jailbird Phiber Optik a.k.a. Mark Abene, who as a teen inspired a generation to explore the vast intricacies of the telephone system -- delivered sound advice on the mentality of the Justice Department in searches and seizures, namely, a failure to see the uses of technology beyond any potential criminal applications.

But elsewhere there were Segways to ride (and crash into the walls at up to 30 mph) and fun to be had. In the packed screening room, Lost Film Fest, "probably the only film fest with an FBI file," according to director Scott Beibin, created the mood of an underground dance party with a barrage of social commentary, hot protest footage and a series of low-budget masterpieces. I drooled over an RFID blocking wallet in the vendor area, signal enhancers that could obviate an urbanite's need to pay for internet service, and the innocuous TV B Gone clicker, developed by the ebullient and preternaturally young Mitch Altman. They work, and golly, were they ever fun in the hotel lobby.

At every moment the "lock-picking village," an area sponsored by Toool, was full of disciples learning to manipulate the mechanical locks found on most houses, bikes and handcuffs with simple shims, hooks and the crude-yet-elegant modified keys needed to "bump" open a lock. In-jokes floated on the sea of black T-shirts swaddling the crowd.

"I rooted your girlfriend's box and didn't use a trojan."

"1 and 0 ... How hard can it be?"

"I'm only wearing black until they come up with something darker."

Not thinking, I logged on to IM on my laptop (a free and very fast wireless signal was provided), and soon enough a chat window popped up saying, "Funny that this includes your login ..." and my file sharing preferences were all suddenly set to open. Whoops.

It's childlike curiosity and love of tinkering, plus the belief in security through transparency, that comes together at HOPE. So does tinkering offline, which is another function of the conference whose congregants spend so much time in cyberspace.

As BernieS explained, "Social Engineering" during a live phone demo -- which has in the past transferred itself to the PA system of a K-Mart and told all shoppers that everything in aisle 7 was free, convinced a local Taco Bell to serve no one for seven minutes, and chatted Starbucks into reading off their customers' credit card transactions over the phone -- "It's not really lying! The challenge is to make your mark thinking you said something you didn't really say."

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