August 1, 2007

Black Hat begins

Author: Joe Barr

The Black Hat USA 2007 Briefings got underway this morning at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Founder Jeff Moss opened the proceedings with a few brief remarks and statistics about the show. Officially, there are more than 4,000 attendees from more than 50 countries, Moss said, and that number would have been higher if Halvar Flake been admitted to the country instead of returned to Germany by immigration officials.

Moss asked the overflow crowd to contact their government representatives about the Flake incident, which he described as being a minor technicality which was blown out of proportion after immigration in Detroit had failed to prevent the entry of a genuine "bad guy" earlier the same day. While on his soapbox, Moss also addressed the problem of vendors making legal threats against researchers, and said he would continue that fight going forward.

Moss then turned the podium over to a pair of keynoters: former White House security advisor Richard Clarke in one room, and Tony Sager, the head of the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate, in another room. Clarke began by recounting his first talk at Black Hat in the first year of the Bush administration. He said he got a lot of "shit" about talking to hackers when he got back to the White House. He had encouraged attendees at that presentation to continue their research in finding vulnerabilities, and someone from Redmond had called the White House to complain.

At the far end of the hall, Tony Sager was holding forth on his mission to provide information security at the NSA and associated federal agencies.

I ran into Sager yesterday, in an unusual way. I was riding in a rented mobility scooter in Caesar's Palace, and trying to find an accessible route to the registration area. As I neared an escalator, I noticed a man struggling to free himself from the clutches of several women and a couple of men. At first I thought it was a family dispute, or perhaps someone who had overindulged in libations. But something about the way the man was moving looked wrong for either, so I watched a little longer. Twice the man appeared to collapse, and was only held up by the helping hands of those around him. His arm would swing up as if out of control, and he would stumble forward. It dawned on me that he was having some sort of seizure. I drove the scooter up as close as I dared, then got out of it and said, "Sit him in this."

Freed of the immediate burden of trying to keep him from falling, I watched as the three women -- all nurses attending a convention at the hotel -- and the two guys cared for the gentleman until EMS arrived and took him to the hospital. From the conversations, I learned that the man had apparently had a seizure at the top of the escalators and tumbled all the way down. He was as confused as everyone else as to what had happened to him. I also learned that one of two men involved, Brad Smith, is not only on the Black Hat staff, but is a registered nurse as well.

A journalist passing by grabbed my arm and asked if I knew who the injured man was. I said no, and he said, "That's the top guy at the NSA's Information Assurance operation." A moment later, Niko Sell, Black Hat's press liaison, rushed up and said to the second gentlemen who had been helping, "Tony, I am so glad you are OK. I heard you had collapsed!"

The real story is that Sager, a keynoter at this year's event, had just finished registering when he saw the man start to fall down the escalator. In his rush to help, he had dropped his name badge where the man had fallen. People assumed Sager was the afflicted man, and the rumor spread like wildfire. The good news this morning is that the gentleman with the medical emergency suffered heat stroke, and is expected to be back at the show today.

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