Hackfest revisited: It's getting scary out there

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” If only that tourism marketing line were true when it comes to the computer hacker exploits showcased at the annual Black Hat Briefings and DefCon security conferences, held at the end of July in Las Vegas.

During the conference sessions, cell phones, Wi-Fi networks, bank automated teller machines and public utility control systems were just some of the devices and critical infrastructure shown to be vulnerable to hackers' prying and manipulation.

No one says pulling off those kinds of exploits is necessarily easy or commonplace; it’s just possible, which is the rationale for making them public and hopefully pressuring the people who can fix the problems to do so. Black Hat runs first and attracts a more professional crowd than DefCon, which charges only $140 for admission — cash only, of course, to make tracking attendees more difficult. Government recruiters reportedly make the rounds at both conventions.

Here are some important takeaways from the recent Vegas get-togethers.

Don’t trust cell phones. Determined parties with big budgets have long been able to eavesdrop on cell phones by tricking the handsets into routing their outbound calls through a phony transmitter station. But security researcher Chris Paget demonstrated that anyone with about $1,500 and some expertise could build his or her own backyard cell phone spy station. Paget’s setup works with 2G Global System for Mobile Communications phones, making AT&T and T-Mobile calls vulnerable to interception, even with encrypted calls, writes Kim Zetter for Wired.

At another session, researchers Don Bailey and Nick DePetrillo showed how they can track down cell phone numbers, identify the person who owns the phone, and then trace the whereabouts of that person using inexpensive and easily available technology, writes Dean Takahashi for MobileBeat. “This is intelligence gathering for civilians,” Bailey said.

Hacking isn’t cyber war. Policy-makers have to be careful when differentiating between cyber war and plain-old foreign intelligence gathering. That's because the concepts are getting a little fuzzy, and misunderstandings between nations can result, said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who has served as director of the National Security Agency and the CIA.

Hayden described cyber network operations as a triangle with defense on one corner, attack on another and exploitation on the third, writes Tim Wilson on Dark Reading. Exploitation is the use of cybersecurity technology to extract information from foreign powers. "In the intelligence community, we don't call that cyber war," Hayden said. "That's espionage. States do that all the time, and they are not at war."

Some threats shall not be named. Black Hat is now as famous for what doesn’t get presented as what does. In past years, scheduled presentations on bank ATMs, mass transit fare cards and Apple’s security practices were pulled at the last minute because of pressure from one concerned party or another. This year, a researcher with Armorize, a Taiwanese security company, was supposed to talk about the size and scope of Chinese government-backed hacking initiatives, but the presentation was pulled after several Taiwanese and Chinese organizations that had contributed to the report got cold feet, reports Jaikumar Vijayan for Computerworld.

Black Hat founder Jeff Moss told Computerworld that in the future, conference organizers will try to identify talks that are likely to run into those kinds of problems and announce the presentation only at the last possible moment to avoid giving opposition a chance to build.