The hackers life -- my weekend at Defcon

The hackers life -- my weekend at Defcon
The hackers life -- my weekend at Defcon

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By Lou Lesko
National Geographic Assignment Blog
August 6, 2010

I=E2=80=99m walking with Nico through the hallways of the convention area of the 
Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. There is a distinct old school feeling at 
the Riviera that reminds one of the days when Las Vegas was run by the 
family. Walking swiftly Nico tells me that we might see security expert 
Chris Paget get arrested during his presentation.


As we get closer to the hall where Paget is presenting, I can hear 
someone yelling, =E2=80=9Cif you have a GSM cell phone, your call may be 
intercepted. If you do not want this to happen, then turn off your cell 
phone.=E2=80=9D The vociferous warning is supported by the flyers I see 
haphazardly taped to the walls.

Using a laptop, a transmitter broadcasting over a ham-radio frequency 
and two antennas, Paget has created a GSM base station which all the 
mobile phones in the near vicinity have been duped into thinking is a 
legitimate AT&T cell tower. =E2=80=9CWhen the phone is looking for a signal, it 
looks for the strongest tower. This [his setup] offers the best signal,=E2=80=9D 
he explains. On the laptop screen he shows a list of phones, mine 
included, that are connected to his fake network. The threat of arrest 
comes from the FCC. Should Paget intercept a voice or data transmission 
from one of the phones connected to his $1500 dollars worth of equipment 
and open-source software, he will be in violation of the law. I honestly 
can=E2=80=99t decide if I want to see that happen or not. The sensationalistic 
side of me would love to see the drama, but the rational side of me is 
taken with Paget=E2=80=99s enthusiasm and blazing intelligence. More 
importantly, he has revealed an inherent security weakness with 2G 
technology. A weakness that can be fixed by moving mobile networks to 3G 
or encrypting 2G connections.

This is an example of what happens every year at the DefCon hacker 
conference in Las Vegas. Passionate hackers present their knowledge and 
capabilities, often times skirting the very fringes of legality. 
However, if you think that this is a convention for geek criminals, then 
you=E2=80=99ve been watching too much NBC.


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