Local TV reporters are infamous for practicing "ambush" journalism — but as they try to take their gotcha practices to the Web, increasingly they're the ones ambushed. The first rule of hacking, after all, is "Don't get caught." And Fox newsman Darrell Phillips may have broken that rule, Drew Curtis has told Valleywag. Curtis, left, is the founder of Fark.com, a thoroughly juvenile, and entertaining, social news site where users pick the headlines. Phillips, to his right, is the new media manager at WHBQ Fox13, a News Corp.-owned TV station in Memphis, Tenn. And Curtis claims to have assembled all-but-conclusive electronic evidence that Phillips has tried to hack into Fark's servers, potentially breaking several laws.
Curtis believes that Phillips, or someone working with Phillips, sent him and several other Fark employees deceptive emails in an attempt to get them to download a trojan, a form of computer virus. The Trojan was designed to capture their passwords and give the author access to Fark's servers. In one case, it succeeded, giving a hacker passwords to a file server and one Fark employee's email account; he tried, but failed, to break into Fark's Web servers and email. Unfortunately for the hacker, Fark was able to trace his attempts to break into their system back to a machine in Memphis connected to a Comcast high-speed Internet connection.
At the same time, Phillips, already a Fark member, logged into several other user accounts on Fark — either ones he'd created or ones to which he'd somehow gotten access. Phillips also purchased, using PayPal, a paid subscription to TotalFark, a premium Fark service. The accounts all used the same IP addresses as the hacker. Busted. Curtis says he's "99 percent sure" it's Phillips — and is now attempting to pursue legal action, seeking detailed data from Comcast, to remove his doubts.
What does this mean? Curtis is unsure of Phllips's potential motives — assuming Phillips is, indeed, the hacker. Phillips may have had accomplices, after all — or his own accounts may have been compromised, which would be embarrassing enough for the reporter, who's apparently somewhat Internet-savvy.
But consider this: Phillips's station has launched a news aggregator, OnMemphis.com. The hacker appears to have been hunting for source code and trying to log into Fark's Web-based moderation tools. A look at either would be helpful to someone designing a social-news website.
Phillips might claim he was researching a story on the security of social news sites. If so, the fact that Fark employees so readily detected the intrusion and shut it down doesn't leave him with much of a tale to tell. But certainly, for a newsman, this would at least be a plausible cover story.
And one last motivation that should be mentioned, in the service of conspiracy theorists everywhere: Could Phillips have been working on behalf of higher-ups at News Corp.? It's a well-established fact that Fox News producers are fans of the thoroughly puerile headlines featured on Fark — so much so that a newspaper reporter caught one red-handed using the site as a source for story ideas. That episode, in turn, got some News Corp. executives interested in Fark, for whom the site might be a logical acquisition. If so, the assault on Fark's servers could, just possibly, be a spectacularly hamhanded form of due diligence. It's unlikely veering on unbelievable, but when we're talking about someone who works for Rupert Murdoch, it would be foolish to rule it out altogether.