A few months ago– August, to be exact– I hopped a plane to attend my second-ever DefCon, a renowned hacker conference that entered its 21st year. This year’s gathering of security experts, hackers, makers, and technology enthusiasts from around the world was full of incredible talks (all of which seemed like pretty incredible feats of technology to me, given my current status of Codecademy dropout), hardware hacking, hacking contests, and other shenanigans felt feistier than ever. After having spent ten collective days in the middle of the desert (so, so hot) with hackers, here are the top four reasons I think that everyone should love them:
- Hackers are the foremost advocates of privacy on the web. As surprising as it may seem, it’s true: because they’re on the front lines either making or breaking information security, hackers are the first to point out when technology doesn’t do what it should be doing. When a small hack or exploit is the difference between the information you share and communications you make through technology being private or open for anyone to read, it’s these fine ladies and gentlemen who are the ones most likely to find it and start pitching a fit.
- Hackers are all about collaborating, sharing, learning, and experimenting. Having implemented and worked in education technology, I’m always a bleeding heart for connected learning and collaboration. While we may not all agree with black hat tactics, no matter what hats they’re wearing, security engineers and researchers and almost everyone with a “fuck it, ship it” spirit in this community is happy to share knowledge and teach others their ways.
- Hackers are creative. No, seriously– tell this bunch “no” or that something isn’t possible, and watch them chip away at a problem until they find a solution. Whether they hack hardware or software, hackers are well aware that every device with a chip has a vulnerability, and that many of these vulnerabilities are much easier than they should ever be to exploit. Case in point: well-known researchers in this bunch have found fatal flaws in pacemakers, hacked their way into public transit systems with little-to-no difficulty at all, gained access to information about flight schedules, figured out that Snapchat doesn’t actually get rid of your messages when they’re set to self-destruct, and so much more. (True story: I might have a thing for someone who hacks his car.)
- Hackers aren’t who you think they are. By this point in life–at any point past 3rd grade, really– we should all be able to identify and bust stereotypes, and yet many still hold the belief that hackers are basement-dwelling cyber-criminals lurking in every corner of the internet just waiting to steal ALL of your everything. The reality of the hacker community is different, however, very much different. Many of the attendees of what has become my favorite conference (Sorry, SXSW! Sorry not sorry, TechCrunch Disrupt!) work for some of the largest technology companies in the world, and others protect the freedom of the web and net neutrality every working moment of their lives. Alternately, hackers and makers are closely related in that they really, really like building awesome things
Over the past year, much of the technology world has been abuzz talking about the “Internet of Things.” As we connect more and more devices we’re surrounded by to the web, the world we live in will become a “smarter” but more vulnerable place. Now more than ever, we need a community of creative minds to challenge the devices that technologists put out into the world and the very protocols on which the web is built, especially in the wake of the NSA’s surveillance programs.*
I’m not saying that we should all stop and hug a hacker– they’ve got that one down already with #awkwardhugs, after all– I do think it’s time for everyone who uses the web to wise up on their web literacy skills and begin fighting for the right to privacy and security at the heart of every technology that we use. Hackers and the security community have been doing it for years… it’s time to shut down the stereotypes, show them a little love, and join the fight.
* Many in the security/hacking community believe that the NSA and other government agencies purposely built vulnerabilities into encryption methods and other flaws in the foundation of the web to make it easy to monitor and intercept. Way to rig the system, feds.