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February 26, 2014

Was DEFCON Hacked?

Revelations about the British counterpart to the National Security Agency (News - Alert) (NSA) should raise questions among the organizers of the DEFCON hacker community. The UK's GCHQ has conducted a series of operations against Anonymous and Occupy groups, according to the latest round of Edward Snowden leaks. Has DEFCON been targeted over the years in a different fashion?

GCHQ, according to the latest round of articles published by NBC News and The Intercept, have targeted Anonymous with denial of service attacks, online sexual "honey traps," and destructive viruses as a part of a large strategy to "control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse."  

The JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group), a GCHQ organization revealed via the latest Snowden documents, uses a range of online tactics to discredit "targets" and to make something happen in  the real or cyber world. Psychology and other social sciences are being used to understand, shape, and control how online activism and discussion unfold.

A lot of the complex techniques I can trace back all the way to the simple discussions I had back in junior high school about propaganda and marketing, with "good" and "bad" uses.   Judging from The Intercept pieces, GCHQ has a heavy emphasis on the dark side, with false flag operations, fake victim blog posts and "negative information" posts on various forums.

Established over two decades ago, the DEFCON Hacking Conference is one of the annual major computer security events in the world.  At first, the relationship between DEFCON organizers and the "Feds" was playful.  Attendees who could pick out government employees from the crowd would get a "Spot the Fed" T-shirt.

By DEFCON 12, the Feds had their own "Meet the Fed Panel."  Robert Morris, NSA Chief Scientist from 1986 to 1994 was a de facto guest of the 2004 Las Vegas event. Government agencies became to view the event as a way to recruit cybersecurity talent, with panels giving advice on how to apply for federal jobs and what past sins (crimes) might disqualify applicants for employment.

Over the years, the relationships between the government grew to be more comfortable. NSA Director Keith Alexander gave the keynote speech at DEFCON in 2012 while DEFCON founder Jeff Moss was a fed -- more specifically, he had been sworn in as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council in 2009.

The long running relationship fell apart in 2013, triggered by numerous stories based upon Snowden documents. Moss posted a "Feds, we need some time apart" statement on the DEFCON website, asking for a "time out" with no government presence at the 2013 gathering.

Looking back at the timeframe from 2004 through 2013 begs the question numerous questions. Did the NSA and/or other U.S. government agencies mount a structured campaign to gain access and influence at DEFCON? Or was the relationship more of agency/industry type akin to various defense trade shows, where both sides realize they have something gain from participating?

If there was a concerted effort by the U.S. government to mount a structured campaign to co-opt DEFCON, there's at least one Powerpoint or two floating around somewhere. The question becomes if Snowden had access to and managed to collect such documents before leaving his job at NSA.  I guess we'll have to check the news in the weeks and months ahead to find out.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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