The Norman Transcript

Local Business

August 16, 2008

Busted by Defcon's Wall of Sheep

Last weekend saw me once again attending the annual Defcon computer security conference in Las Vegas. The conference's 8,000 or so attendees, who came from all around the globe, were made up of the normal groups of hackers, crackers, feds and wannabes. As usual, almost every three- or four-letter U.S. federal agency was represented, along with all branches of the military and major computer-oriented corporations. Once again, I found myself surrounded by the smartest computer people in the world.

I came away from the conference with many stories to tell, and I will devote the next three or four of the newspaper columns that I write to tell them.

This week, I'll explain how the Defcon Wall of Sheep busted my e-mail account. Yes, you read that right, I got hacked, though it's not as bad as it sounds; I did it on purpose, eyes wide open.

Defcon provides a number of wireless networks for use by conference attendees. These are open, unsecured wireless networks that do not require a password or "key" to use, just like the wireless networks that you will find at IHOP or La Baguette. Anyone within range can connect to these networks, and connect they do, surfing Web sites and engaging in one of Defcon's most risky activities: checking e-mail. The working phrase is "caveat emptor," for the Defcon wireless networks are widely regarded as among the most hostile in the world.

One of the giant rooms used by Defcon has a number of tables setup at one end. The tables are filled with computers and other interesting pieces of electronic gear. On one of the tables sits a projector connected to a computer, which displays a huge screen on one of the walls. This is the Wall of Sheep, on which appear the user names, partially obscured passwords and type of Internet activity of people who get busted. Wall of Sheep volunteers are constantly monitoring and analyzing activity, or "traffic," on the wireless networks. They are, in their own words, "looking for evidence of users logging into e-mail, Web sites, or other network services without the protection of encryption. Those we find get put on the Wall of Sheep as a good-natured reminder that a malicious person could do the same thing we did... with far less friendly consequences."

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