Black Hat with a Vista twist

The annual hacker event usually focuses on breaking into systems. This year, a series of Microsoft-themed sessions takes a different tack.

This year, Black Hat is not just about breaking and entering.

The annual security conference traditionally focuses on hunting for bugs and attacking computer systems. At the 2006 event this week, however, an entire track will be devoted to the security--rather than the insecurity--of Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 7. The series of sessions will be hosted by Microsoft, a major sponsor of the event this year.

It's an unprecedented and comprehensive first-look at the security in Vista and its associated Web browser, Black Hat Director Jeff Moss said in an interview Monday. "Even if attendees are not getting three different ways to hack into IE 7, they get the back story," he said.

Microsoft says it is the first in the history of Black Hat Briefings to present an entire track on a prerelease product. It has talked up Vista as its most secure operating system ever, and has said that security was the No. 1 investment in IE 7.

It's a sign of development at the event, which brings together the hacker and corporate worlds for two days of talks in Las Vegas. The tenth Black Hat promises to be special, Moss said. "It is the largest show ever in terms of size and attendees," he said. Moss sold rights to the conference to technology publisher CMP Media in November, but he still runs the event.

Black Hat has been around since 1997. The event has traditionally focused on exposing flaws in software and on sharing hacker tools. "We always tried to be more practical--watch a talk, go home and do something," Moss said. "We try to stay away from the purely academic area."

This year's confab is expected to draw about 3,000 people, a mix of security professionals, underground hackers, federal agents and vendors. It will be followed by the DefCon, a gathering infamous for its hacker activity.

"We really seem to reach critical mass this year," Moss said. "Every year, it has always been incremental growth, primarily through word of mouth. This year, we grew over 20 percent, and that has never happened before." Moss attributes the increase in registrations to the high profile of the event as well as to a rising interest in security.

Uneasy bedfellows
Microsoft is not the only major technology company with a big presence at Black Hat. Cisco Systems has signed on as a "Platinum Sponsor," alongside Microsoft and consultancy firm Ernst & Young. Last year, Cisco drew the ire of many Black Hat and DefCon attendees when it sued a security researcher and conference organizers after a session on router security.

The legal action followed a presentation by researcher Michael Lynn, who demonstrated he could gain control of a Cisco router by exploiting a known security flaw in Cisco's Internetwork Operating System. The operating system had until then been perceived as impervious to such attacks.

Cisco and Internet Security Systems--Lynn's employer--had agreed to pull the presentation, but Lynn quit his job and gave the talk anyway. Cisco and ISS sued Lynn after his presentation, and hackers rallied behind the researcher.

This year, Cisco is playing nice. In addition to its sponsorship, the company is sending Chief Security Officer John Stewart to talk about relationships between vendors and security researchers. The networking giant is also throwing a party for Black Hat attendees at Pure, the night club at Caesars Palace.

Still, Black Hat wouldn't be Black Hat without the usual exposure of security flaws and release of details of new hacker techniques. Researchers are slated to demonstrate 25 new tools and outline 15 new exploits at the event, according to organizers.

Special attention is going to security risks associated with Web 2.0, which covers more-advanced Web sites that use programming techniques such as AJAX and JavaScript. Also on the calendar are presentations on rootkits, security in voice services and, as in previous years, database security.

In the networking area, one technology to be scrutinized is network admission control (NAC). Ofir Arkin, chief technology officer at Insightix, plans to disclose weaknesses in NAC systems, which are designed to restrict access to a network according to identity or the security status of a computer. Cisco and Microsoft are two major NAC players.

"These flaws allow the complete bypass of each and every network access control mechanism currently offered on the market," according to the Black Hat calendar.

Some of the presentations are generating buzz, and some presenters have changed or quit jobs to be able to present, Moss said. He doesn't expect there to be any legal wrangling. But, then again, "I didn't know I was going to get sued last year," Moss said.

Black Hat takes place Wednesday and Thursday, then DefCon runs Friday through Sunday.

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