Column: Raising Cain at Black Hat

A journalist caught sniffing the network in the press room changes the way reporters will welcome outsiders in the future.

Robert Vamosi Former Editor
As CNET's former resident security expert, Robert Vamosi has been interviewed on the BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets to share his knowledge about the latest online threats and to offer advice on personal and corporate security.
Robert Vamosi
5 min read

LAS VEGAS--On the second day of the Black Hat security conference, a trio of journalists turned on other journalists within the press room.

This was my ninth Black Hat in nine years, and I have lived in dread year after year that such a headline would affect me. On Thursday, CNET News was named as one of the two organizations "hacked," but I disagree that any such hack occurred.

Just before noon on Thursday, a trio of reporters from Global Security Mag sat in one of the two press rooms at Black Hat. Both rooms have a wired LAN that is a separate part of the wireless network open to all attending the security conference. What happened on Thursday was not a wireless attack--it is important to stress that. Most of the reporters in the press room are veterans of security conferences and take precautions against such attacks. Even so, the press room is separate from the conference and often a safe harbor for posting our stories to the Internet. Conference speakers and members of the Black Hat staff also use this network.

Mauro Israel, one of the Global Security Mag reporters, is alleged to have used a USB on his laptop to turn it into a gateway for all Internet packets going through the wired network switch located at each table in the room. In other words, he routed all the signals going through the LAN through his computer and used a program called Cain to view the packet information. It is unclear how long this was done. Log files seen by CNET News suggest it might have only been a short period before lunch on Thursday.

Cain, the tool used to view the packet information, can be a helpful network administrator tool. But in the wrong hands, it can also be used to gain access to a network in violation of federal wiretapping laws.

After lunch, Isreal, Dominique Jouniot, and Marc Brami from Global Security Mag moved to the table where I was sitting with my colleague Elinor Mills. I use a commercial encrypted VPN service to connect to my office remotely; Mills uses the corporate VPN we have at CNET. We suspect that when I left the table, the trio turned their attention to CNET. Mills, also a veteran of many security conferences, offers a first-person account of being targeted here.

The reporters' badges sit on a chair after they were confiscated. Declan McCullagh/CNET News

Ironically, I left the table to go and interview Aries Security, the guys running the Wall of Sheep, a project that passively monitors the wireless open network traffic at Black Hat and Defcon for the purposes of educating users on safe practices. What I didn't realize was that Brami, Jounio, and Isreal had been talking with the Wall of Sheep guys just prior to my arrival. One member of Aries Security, Riverside, even made a comment about "journalists hacking journalists."

I didn't get the reference at the time.

Apparently, Israel and his colleague tried moments before I arrived to get the usernames and passwords for reporters from eWeek and CNET added to the Wall of Sheep, a display of partially obscured usernames and passwords that is sometimes referred to as the "Wall of Shame." Riverside and others at Aries Security told them they would not post journalists' names to the Wall of Sheep because the press room was on a network separate from the one they were monitoring.

Another reporter that had been sitting in the Wall of Sheep room, Humphrey Cheung of TGDaily, overhead the conversation with Brami, became curious, and was allowed to take a photo of Israel's laptop screen. Those photos are important. The images that appear on the TGDaily site are redacted, of course. I later saw the originals.

What the trio of French reporters offered the Wall of Sheep was a Cain log with columns for timestamps, HTTP, client, username, and other information. From the log screen, it is apparent that on Thursday, beginning at 10:55 a.m., there were packets captured that were going out to eWeek.com. The IP address in the log resolved to a log-in page, presumably for a publishing tool used at that publication. The Wall of Sheep asks that submissions be done via Notepad file, so Israel pasted the username, password, and destination IP address into a file.

One eWeek reporter, Brian Prince, later confirmed his username and password were collected and displayed. eWeek immediately changed his password. Prince was not using a VPN for reasons he explained here.

But here's where it gets curious. A second line was added to the Notepad file, this one purportedly showing log-in information from news.cnet.com. When I saw the un-redacted photo, I knew instantly that the reference to CNET was a fake. My colleague Declan McCullagh resolved the IP address given as the destination to the CNET News home page--not a tool page, but our standard home page. That could be explained as anyone in the press room could have surfed to that page.

What tipped me off that the reference to CNET was truly bogus is that the username was a word within the code of the home page, a word anyone might find by right clicking and viewing the page source. Second, the password "control" wasn't strong enough, nor did it belong to Declan, Elinor, or myself. It was a fake.

I went back to the Wall of Sheep. Riverside was incredibly helpful, confirming that reporters from Global Security Mag had been there offering some log data. He even had the business card for Marc Brami, director of the publication. Moments later, a spokesperson for Black Hat confirmed that conference officials were looking for Brami and his colleagues as well. The three were later required to leave the conference and are banned for life from Black Hat and its sister conference, Defcon.

What I don't understand is if this was a prank--as Brami has suggested to Mills--then why didn't they simply say to Prince or anyone else in the press room that they could see their network communications? And, if they simply wanted to send a message to U.S. journalists about laptop security--as they reportedly suggested to the Black Hat officials--why did they apparently lie about CNET also being exposed?

A strange thing happened on Thursday. As the story unfolded, reporters from competing publications gathered in the press room. It was a bonding moment. The protected network in any press room is a circle of trust, and when that trust is violated, bad things can happen. Potentially everyone in the room had been a victim. And as such, we rallied around each other for support.

As a result of Thursday night's events, I think I know my security colleagues a little better, and that's a good thing. They're good, hard-working reporters. But in the future, if anyone I don't know joins me at a press table, I'm going to interrogate them, and a few others have told me they will as well, and that's a bad thing.

Like the biblical story, this instance of Cain has also brought evil into a world that was previously safe and welcoming.

Kurt Opsahl, left, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, discusses the ejection of the three French journalists over networking snooping allegations. Declan McCullagh/CNET News

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