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‘Silicon Valley’ Fact Check: Can You Hack a Major Tech Conference? Renowned Programmer Weighs In

The Wrap Steve BallmerSteve Ballmer
Monday, 19 June 2017 ()

‘Silicon Valley’ Fact Check: Can You Hack a Major Tech Conference? Renowned Programmer Weighs InWarning: “Silicon Valley” spoilers ensue. 

In the latest episode of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” (aptly titled “Hooli-Con”), the guys sought to covertly grab attendee data at Hooli’s annual tech convention. Beyond the moral boundaries being crossed — which Jared did not want to step over — Richard, Dinesh and Gilfoyle had a colossal challenge on their hands: setting up rogue wifi “pineapples” around the convention in order to have users login to their system and allow the Pied Piper team to pull information.

It’s an entertaining storyline, though it seems pretty inconceivable a small team of engineers could hack a major tech conference as did the gang in this season’s penultimate episode.

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But it’s not completely out of the question, according to software guru Jeff Atwood — co-founder of Stack Overflow, a programming community with more than seven million members.

“It is partially credible, as people would connect to the local malicious wifi and you could serve them ‘fake’ versions of sites,” said Atwood in an interview with TheWrap. “However! It is almost completely mitigated by HSTS [HTTP Strict Transport Security] which any large site would definitely already be using.”

In layman’s terms: If Apple or Google were lazy enough to use a vulnerable internet connection for its attendees, it would create an opening for hackers to funnel users towards their wifi. Of course, this is rarely the case.

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There is one sticking point for the “Silicon Valley” crew in this scenario, though. To have attendees skip over their hack, it would “require that either the user has visited this URL before, or the URL is already big enough to be on the HSTS browser preload list,” according to Atwood.

Atwood laid out three ways a “small window of attack” could be pulled off like the “Silicon Valley” maneuver:

1. If it is a new HTTPS URL the user has not visited before, and it is not on the HSTS preload list.

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2. If that URL is not HTTPS (very implausible, because every credible big site uses HTTPS these days).
3. The URL is HTTPS but the app or website is not using HSTS preload. Sort of plausible, but a BIG security oversight for a company of any major size!
Got all that? In reality, a data breach that could enable a “Silicon Valley”-style attack is more likely to come from a small startup rather than a tech giant like Facebook (or the fictional Hooli). It’d also help if the hypothetical company’s security team turned a blind eye to the perpetrators — just as Hooli’s team did in the latest episode of HBO’s comedy series.
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