Tensions ran high on the second day of the Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference, as the FBI made a surprise visit to arrest one of the scheduled panelists.
Steve Rambam, a noted private investigator who runs Pallorium, an online investigative service, was set to lead a panel discussion titled "Privacy is Dead ... Get Over It." According to other members of the privacy panel, four men in blue coats appeared shortly before the panel and led Rambam away in handcuffs.
"If you know Steve, you know he's flamboyant, and at first I thought, 'Oh, it's PR,' you know," said a visibly distraught Kelly Riddle, one of the other members of the privacy panel, to the audience. Riddle said that the FBI had also taken Rambam's presentation -- which included Rambam's laptop and around 500 pages of documentation that Rambam had amassed from the Internet to illustrate his talk. Riddle, along with fellow investigative experts Gerard Keenan and Reginald Montgomery, led the privacy panel sans Rambam as a question-and-answer session -- but Rambam, whose presentation was slated to form the bulk of the panel, was sorely missed.
True to the hacker ethos, at least one conference attendee was already sporting a "Free Steve" T-shirt a few hours later -- an echo of the long-running "Free Kevin" campaign to release famed hacker Kevin Mitnick.
Mitnick was also missing in action on Saturday; the hacker, who was released in 2002 after serving five years in jail, was set to serve on the hotly anticipated "Hackers in Prison" panel, in which three of the most notorious formerly imprisoned hackers -- Mitnick, Mark "Phiber Optik" Abene and bernieS -- were to appear onstage together for the first time. Mitnick was also scheduled to lead a "Kevin Mitnick Unplugged" talk afterward.
According to conference organizers, Mitnick was in a hospital in Colombia, and they did not know when he would return.
Even without Mitnick, the "Hackers in Prison" panel captivated the crammed hall. BernieS described his disillusionment with the government following his run-in with the law. "The way we're used to thinking -- about logic, common sense, fairness, justice -- not only do those things not apply; they're often not even part of the equation in these cases," he said.
Abene, now a respected consultant on security and systems administration issues, dispensed thoughtful advice to the crowd. "I am earning a very decent living, ironically using the same skills I used to break into computers as a kid," Abene said. He continued, "If you're really good at getting access to systems, don't be stupid; don't do things like denial-of-service attacks just because you can. ... If you want to prove something to somebody, don't prove that you can take down their network. Prove that you can do something constructive with it."
In a late-night question-and-answer session titled "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Spying and Intelligence," Robert Steele, a former CIA operative and national security expert, dished out scathing critiques of government policy. A champion of what he calls "open-source intelligence," Steele maintained that "90% of what you need to know about the real world to make intelligence decisions is not secret. ... The secrets are simply an add-on."
Attendees swarmed the more upbeat presentations, such as an entertaining seminar on the science of cooking titled "Food Hacking," a graffiti-art talk by the Graffiti Research Lab, and intriguing panels tracing the strange history of telephone hacking, also called "phone phreaking." Another welcome inclusion in the program was a presentation by Limor "Ladyada" Fried, one of the few female speakers at the conference, who led a consumer electronics hacking how-to with Make magazine senior editor Philip Torrone.
Expect to see many more "Free Steve" T-shirts in the audience at the third and final day of HOPE, which features presentations on social engineering, tracksploits, forensic recovery and "CryptoPhones" -- and, hopefully, a little less drama.