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​Why Black Hat Conference Talks Get Cancelled

Before you explode in a fit of rage, or cry censorship, remember that canceled talks are a common occurrence for Black Hat.

by Joseph Cox
Aug 7 2014, 3:25pm

Image: Dan Tentler/Flickr

Rumblings around the Black Hat security conference, which wraps today, have focused on a seemingly-large number of talks that were suddenly canceled. A recent pair stood out: One was going to expose a general method for undermining home alarm systems, the other was going to detail a piece of Russian technology called "Snake"

But before you explode in a fit of rage, or cry censorship, remember that this is a common occurrence for Black Hat.

"Talks get shifted and pulled every year," Black Hat representative Meredith Corley told me. "It sort of comes with the territory, when you're talking about research that is not only breaking, but also potentially sensitive."

Black Hat isn't your usual research conference. Previously, ATMs have been made to spew out money, and this year one researcher talked about how to hack a passenger jet (although whether that's possible or not is definitely up for debate).

This sort of work does attract a lot of attention from the press, fellows hackers, and from people who would rather keep it quiet. Sometimes talks are axed because of "external pressure from the researcher's employers," Corley said.

A talk that purportedly was going to detail how to unmask users of the Tor network without any need for expensive tools was taken off this year's Black Hat schedule after the institution that the researchers worked for didn't give consent to release the details, according to the Guardian.

Another reason is that the companies whose products are about to exposed on stage in front of a group of hackers aren't too keen on the idea.

"Often, the companies whose products are the targets of the research get wind and pressure the employer of the researchers to pull the talk," Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told me over email.

"This happens every single year," he concluded. Indeed, in 2005, Cisco tried to pressure researcher Mike Lynn into not talking about weaknesses in the company's routers. It seemed like he would comply, but decided to make the presentation anyway, according to a Black Hat post.

Last year, Charlie Miller, one of the guys behind the recent car hacking movement, wasn't allowed to present at Black Hat, so he took the talk to DefCon instead.

But it's not always because the research may be about to break the internet or show the world a new exploit. "Sometimes it's related to scheduling issues, or personal scheduling for the speakers," Corley said.

As for whether this was a significant year when it came to cancellations, Corley said, "I won't even say this is a particularly bad year," and she added that there is no indication of an increasing trend of talks being yanked.

"We just had a few very timely and potentially sensitive talks scheduled, and it just so happened that they got pulled," she said.