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Reporting from Black Hat: When enemies start treating each other like friends, watch your back

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NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander address Black Hat

Mr. Worst Case Scenario is Digital Trends’ paranoid, squinty-gazed, perpetually on-edge security correspondent. And he’s prepared for anything to go wrong, dammit. This week, he’ll slither out of his underground bunker in Montana, don his tinfoil hat and attend DefCon 2013 in Las Vegas.

Here’s a little advice: When enemies start treating each other like friends, watch your back.

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This vital lesson, one of my 19 Maxims of Survival, permeated throughout Wednesday’s talks at Black Hat, the other hacker conference in Sin City this week. Unlike DefCon, which clicks into first gear today, the misnamed Black Hat caters to “white hat” hackers, those so-called good guys of cybersecurity, who spend their days plugging holes before criminals come and inject their various systems with some cross between Angry Birds and chlamydia.

After what I saw today, however, I wouldn’t even let any these people watch my cats, let alone my digital security.

Black Hat rolled off the line at 9am in the Augustus ballroom of Caesar’s Palace with a keynote from none other than King Spy himself, NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander. Given the current ire toward the NSA, one can imagine ten trillion excused for why Alexander might have called in sick for this gig. Nobody wants to sand in front of a room of 2,000 grumps seething with righteous indignation. But like any good soldier, he climbed up to that podium, and did what he had to do – public relations.

After what I saw today, however, I wouldn’t even let any these people watch my cats, let alone my digital security.

After a lovey introduction from Black Hat General Manager Trey Ford that could have come from the pages of an NSA brochure, Alexander took the podium to promise us nothing but “the facts” – a telltale sign that somebody’s about to feed you a cow pie.

“The issue that stands before us today is one of ‘what do we do next?’” said Alexander. “How do we start this discussion on defending our nation and protecting our civil liberties and privacy?

“The reason I’m here is because you may have some ideas of how we can do it better. And we need to hear those ideas. But equally important, from my perspective, is that you get the facts.”

And by “facts,” Alexander meant all the government-approved talking points that have clobbered us over the head since Snowden went AWOL: No civil liberties are being infringed, no laws are being broken, the secretive court that “oversees” the NSA is a vicious defender of the Constitution, and the terrorists are still losing. Give ol’ Uncle Sam a high five!

About the fifth time that Alexander repeated what “noble folks” his subordinates at the NSA are, a heckler who reportedly goes by the name Joe McCoy shouted “Freedom!” Without missing a beat, Alexander retorted, “Exactly. We stand for freedom.”

“Bullshit!” blurted McCoy. The crowd roared with applause.

But in the blink of an eye, Alexander wooed the crowd with some of his verbal magic, which I won’t repeat here for fear of spreading the spell. They cheered his comebacks, clapped at his bold statements of duty and honor. By the end, Alexander had the Black Hat crowd eating out of his spit-shined shoes.

Were this cozy relationship an isolated incident, I could have written it off some side effect of poison-laced air being pumped into the Augustus room.

Were this cozy relationship between the hackers and the Powers the Be an isolated incident, I could have written it off some side effect of poison-laced air being pumped into the Augustus room. But I saw this beast at each and every turn throughout the day.

After Alexander’s speech, I witnessed a room of free men giggling it up to jokes told by the FBI’s Chief Information Security Officer Patrick Reidy. Down the hall, security researchers Tom Ritter and Doug DePerry pretended to disclose a vulnerability in two Verizon femtocells – but really, they’d told Verizon about the problem months ago, and the issue was already fixed. That’s not disclosure, hot shots. That’s showing off.

During a press conference, hacker SeungJin ‘Beist’ Lee rattled off about his ability to spy on people in their living rooms through their smartTVs. And in the next sentence, he admitted to signing a contract with a certain “Korean” television maker whose “name starts with an ‘S.’” The name is Samsung, Lee. And you’re what any self-respecting American would call a sell out.

Even Karsten Nohl, the man behind a half-impressive SIM card hack, said the one thing the media didn’t emphasize enough in their reporting of his discovery was how goddamn awesome the wireless carriers are. They deserve a lot of praise, he said. But he’s German, so what can you expect?

When I landed at McCarran Airport Tuesday night, my biggest fear was a hacker sneaking child porn onto my laptop. After Wednesday, however, I can now see how evil is stacked against us in a much more serious way. Good and bad are synonymous in this world of hackers. The hawks are nesting with the snakes. And the mice, well, we have nowhere to run.

Over and out.

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