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11 top DEF CON and Black Hat talks of all time

Jul 21, 20209 mins

Hacker summer camp is almost upon us again. Here are some of the best talks of all time. Will this year's virtual talks measure up to these legends?

black hat / hacker entering a binary room through a keyhole
Credit: BeeBright / Getty Images

Since 1997, the Black Hat and DEF CON events have gained a reputation for presenting some of the most cutting-edge research in information security. The events have also had their share of controversy – sometimes enough to cause last-minute cancelations. For example, Chris Paget was forced to cancel his Black Hat RFID for Beginners talk in 2007 under threat of litigation from secure card maker HID Corp.

Launched as a single conference in 1997, Black Hat has gone international with annual events in the U.S., Europe and Asia. This year’s virtual U.S. event begins August 1 with four days of technical training, followed by the two-day main conference. DEF CON began in 1992 and also takes place virtually from August 6 to 9.

CSO looks at some of the past Black Hat and DEF CON highlights.

1. The Jeep hack

Who can forget 0xcharlie’s hack of a Jeep–with WIRED reporter Andy Greenberg inside? Security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek presented their findings at Black Hat 2015, and showed how they remotely hacked a jeep and took control of the vehicle, including the transmission, accelerator and brakes. Their previous research had focused on an attack that required physical access to the targeted vehicle, results that auto manufacturers pooh-poohed. The remote, wireless attack, however, made everyone sit up and take notice.

2. Steal everything, kill everybody

Jayson E. Street’s famous DEF CON 19 talk on social engineering, and how he is able to walk into anywhere and could “steal everything, kill everybody” if he wanted to is a perennial favorite talk even all these years later. Who cares if your enterprise is compliant if a random dude in a janitor’s uniform comes in and pulls the plug on your business? Street bluntly lays out the secure sites he’s talked his way into, what he could have done, and hammers home the need for defense in depth against social engineering attacks.

3. Hacking driverless vehicles

Seems inevitable, right? But sometimes you need a proof of concept to drive the point home (pun intended), and security researcher Zoz did just that at DEF CON 21 with his talk “Hacking driverless vehicles“. While driverless vehicles hold the potential to reduce traffic fatalities–turns out humans are really bad drivers–they also introduce new, catastrophic risk that is less likely but far more severe in impact. “With this talk Zoz aims to both inspire unmanned vehicle fans to think about robustness to adversarial and malicious scenarios, and to give the paranoid false hope of resisting the robot revolution,” the talk description says, and the scary thing is not much has changed since he delivered his talk in 2013.

4. Barnaby Jack and ATMs

RIP Barnaby Jack. The late, great hacker and showman made ATMs spit cash all over a stage in 2010 and will always be remembered for his exploits, and his untimely death just weeks before yet another blockbuster Vegas talk on medical device security. In the finest tradition of security research, Jack sought to provoke manufacturers to improve the security posture of their devices. The New Zealander was living in San Francisco when he died of a drug overdose, sparking conspiracy theories among some in the hacker community.

5. Back Orifice

Cult of the Dead Cow has been much in the news of late, and their Back Orifice talk at DEF CON in 1999 was a classic–and one that’s been getting renewed attention due to Joseph Menn’s new book, “Cult of the Dead Cow,” that traces the history of that hacking group. Back Orifice was a malware proof of concept designed to backdoor enterprise Windows 2000 systems. Their motive? To force Microsoft to acknowledge the rampant insecurities in their operating systems. One can trace a direct line from provocations like Back Orifice to the famous 2002 Bill Gates memo on trustworthy computing, when the then-CEO of Microsoft laid out security as job #1 going forward for Microsoft.

6. Blue Pill

Joanna Rutkowska’s legendary talk on subverting hypervisor security is one for the history books. Named after the Matrix “blue pill”–a drug that makes the fake world look real–the Blue Pill exploit made quite the splash at Black Hat 2006.

“The idea behind Blue Pill is simple: Your operating system swallows the Blue Pill and it awakes inside the Matrix controlled by the ultra-thin Blue Pill hypervisor,” Rutkowska wrote at the time. “This all happens on-the-fly (i.e., without restarting the system) and there is no performance penalty and all the devices, like graphics card, are fully accessible to the operating system, which is now executing inside virtual machine.”

Since then, Rutkowska has turned her offensive genius to play defense, and launched the high security Qubes operating system, a hardened Xen distribution for laptops.

7. Bluesnarfing and the BlueSniper rifle 

While modern smartphones are minicomputers that use a range of wireless protocols, including WiFi, to transfer data, 2004 was very much still the age of feature phones. The first iPhone wouldn’t come out for another three years. Back in those days, the most popular wireless data transfer technology on cell phones was Bluetooth, and while it didn’t have great security and people often left it open, the phone manufacturers of the day believed the risk of attack to be low because Bluetooth is a short-range protocol.

That argument was again brought up when researchers Adam Laurie and Martin Herfurt demonstrated several vulnerabilities and attacks against Bluetooth implementations at the Black Hat and DEF CON conferences in 2004 that could allow attackers to turn phones into listening devices or to download agenda, calendar appointments or text messages from phones without authorization. They dubbed their attacks bluebugging and bluesnarfing.

A researcher named John Hering then took the threat to another level by demonstrating the feasibility of Bluetooth-based attacks from over a mile away using a device equipped with a semi-directional antenna that resembled a rifle. The BlueSniper rifle was born.

8. The Kaminsky bug 

In 2008, security researcher Dan Kaminsky discovered a fundamental flaw in the Domain Name System (DNS) protocol that affected the most widely used DNS server software. The flaw allowed attackers to poison the cache of DNS servers used by telecommunications providers and large organizations and force them to return rogue responses to DNS queries. This enabled website spoofing, email interception and a range of other attacks.

With DNS being one of the core internet protocols, the bug triggered one of the biggest coordinated patching efforts in history. It also sped up the adoption and deployment of the Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC), which add digital signatures to DNS records. Since 2010 Kaminsky has been one of the seven DNSSEC Recovery Key Share Holders, people from around the world whose individual keys are needed in the recovery process for the DNSSEC root key in case it’s lost in a catastrophe.

The DNS cache poisoning bug was announced in July 2018 and Dan Kamisky presented further details about it at the Black Hat USA and DEF CON 16 conference the next month.

9. From phpwn to “How I Met Your Girlfriend”

In 2010, security researcher and hacker Samy Kamkar built a program called phpwn that exploited a bug in the pseudorandom number generator of the PHP programming language. PHP is the most widely used web-based programming language in the world and random numbers are critical to any cryptographic operation. In particular, Kamkar’s phpwn demonstrated that the session IDs produced by PHP’s LCG (linear congruential generator) — a pseudorandom number generator — could be predicted with sufficient accuracy to allow session hijacking. Websites use session IDs stored inside cookies to track and automatically authenticate logged in users.

Kamkar, who is also known as the creator of the Samy cross-site scripting worm that took down MySpace in 2005, demonstrated the phpwn attack as part of a larger presentation at DEF CON 18 called “How I Met Your Girlfriend” where he showed several techniques and exploits on how to track people online, including finding out their geolocation.

10. The Cavalry Isn’t Coming 

After several years of presentations of serious vulnerabilities in hardware devices that can directly impact human life and safety, like those used in homes, cars, medical services and public infrastructure, researchers Josh Corman and Nick Percoco raised the alarm in a talk at DEF CON 21 entitled “The Cavalry Isn’t Coming.” The talk served as the official launch of the I Am the Cavalry movement, whose goal was to get hackers and security experts in the same room with device manufacturers, industry groups and regulators to better inform them about cybersecurity risk and how to eliminate them from critical devices.

Over the following years, the I Am the Cavalry cyber-safety grassroots organization has been credited with helping automotive and medical device manufacturers launch bug bounty and vulnerability coordination programs, as well as advising the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory bodies on both sides of the Atlantic. The group continues to bridge the cultural and cybersecurity knowledge gap between hackers and decision makers.

11. BadUSB

Malware delivered via USB drives has been around for a very long time. The Stuxnet cybersabotage attack used against Iran launched malware from USB drives using a zero-day Windows vulnerability. However, at Black Hat in 2014, German researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell presented a new form of attack involving USB drives that is almost impossible to detect or prevent without blocking a computer’s USB ports completely.

Dubbed BadUSB, their attack exploits the lack of firmware security in widely used USB controllers to reprogram thumb drives and make them emulate other functionalities and device types–for example a keyboard that can automatically send rogue commands and execute a malicious payload. By design, the USB protocol allows for one device to have multiple functionalities and behave like multiple devices, so this attack takes advantage of a design decision and cannot be blocked.

BadUSB drastically increases the security risks associated with inserting unknown USB devices into computers or even handing out a USB thumb drive to a friend and trusting it after being plugged into their machine. That’s because BadUSB can also be turned into a worm. A computer compromised through a malicious thumb drive can reprogram clean USB thumb drives inserted into them and transform them into carriers.

Senior Writer

J.M. Porup got his start in security working as a Linux sysadmin in 2002. Since then he's covered national security and information security for a variety of publications, and now calls CSO Online home. He previously reported from Colombia for four years, where he wrote travel guidebooks to Latin America, and speaks Spanish fluently with a hilarious gringo-Colombian accent. He holds a Masters degree in Information and Cybersecurity (MICS) from UC Berkeley.

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