On the tenth anniversary of Def Con, the annual Las Vegas meeting of computer hackers, security professionals, and others, I reflected on how the con--and hacking--had changed since I spoke at Def Con 4 seven years earlier.
The word hacker today means everything from digging into a system--any system--at root level to defacing a Web site with graffiti. Because we have to define what we mean whenever we use the term, the word is lost to common usage. Still, post 9/11 and the Patriot Act, it behooves hackers of any definition to be keenly aware of the ends to which they hack. Hackers must know their roots and know how to return to "root" when necessary.
At Def Con 4 I said that hacking was practice for transplanetary life in the 21st century. I was right. The skills I foresaw as essential just a short generation ahead have indeed been developed by the best of the hacker community, who helped to create--and secure--the Net that is now ubiquitous. But the game of building and cracking security, managing multiple identities, and obsessing over solving puzzles is played now on a ten-dimensional chess board. Morphing boundaries at every level of organizational structure have created a new game.
In essence, hacking is a way of thinking about complex systems. It includes the skills required to cobble together seemingly disparate pieces of a puzzle in order to understand the system; whether modules of code or pieces of a bigger societal puzzle, hackers intuitively grasp and look for the bigger picture that makes sense of the parts. So defined, hacking is a high calling. Hacking includes defining and defending identity, creating safe boundaries, and searching for the larger truth in a maze of confusion and intentional disinformation.
In the national security state that has evolved since World War II, hacking is one means by which a free people can retain freedom. Hacking includes the means and methodologies by which we construct more comprehensive truths or images of the systems we hack.
Hackers cross disciplinary lines. In addition to computer hackers, forensic accountants (whistleblowers, really), investigative journalists ("conspiracy theorists"), even shamans are hackers because hacking means hacking both the system and the mind that made it. That's why, when you finally understand Linux, you understand ... everything.
The more complex the system, the more challenging the puzzles, the more exhilarating the quest. Edward O. Wilson said in Consilience that great scientists are characterized by a passion for knowledge, obsessiveness, and daring.
Real hackers too.
The Cold War mentality drew the geopolitical map of the world as opposing alliances; now the map is more complex, defining fluid alliances in terms of non-state actors, narcotics/weapons-traffickers, and incendiary terrorist cells. Still, the game is the same: America sees itself as a huge bulls-eye always on the defensive.
In this interpretation, the mind of society is both target and weapon and the management of perception--from deception and psychological operations to propaganda, spin, and public relations--is its cornerstone.
That means that the modules of truth that must be connected to form the bigger picture are often exchanged in a black market. The machinery of that black market is hacking.
Here's an example:
A colleague was called by a source after a major blackout in the Pacific Northwest. The source claimed that the official explanation for the blackout was bogus. Instead, he suggested, a non-state aggressor such as a narco-terrorist had probably provided a demonstration of power, attacking the electric grid as a show of force.
"The proof will come," he said, "if it happens again in a few days."
A few days later, another blackout hit the area.
Fast-forward to a security conference at which an Army officer and I began chatting. One of his stories made him really chuckle.
"We were in the desert," he said, "testing an electromagnetic weapon. It was high-level stuff. We needed a phone call from the Secretary of Defense to hit the switch. When we did, we turned out the lights all over the Pacific Northwest." He added, "Just to be sure, we did it again a few days later and it happened again."
That story is a metaphor for life in a national security state.
That test took place in a secured area that was, in effect, an entire canyon. Cover stories were prepared for people who might wander in, cover stories for every level of clearance, so each narrative would fuse seamlessly with how different people "constructed reality."
The journalistic source was correct in knowing that the official story didn't account for the details. He knew it was false but didn't know what was true. In the absence of truth, we make it up. Only when we have the real data, including the way the data has been rewritten to obscure the truth, can we know what is happening.
That's hacking on a societal level. Hacking is knowing how to discern or retrieve information beyond that which is designed for official consumption. It is abstract thinking at the highest level, practical knowledge of what's likely, or might, or must be true, if this little piece is true, informed by an intuition so tutored over time it looks like magic.
Post 9/11, the distinction between youthful adventuring and reconstituting the bigger picture on behalf of the greater good is critical. What was trivial mischief that once got a slap on the wrist is now an act of terrorism, setting up a teenager for a long prison term. The advent of global terrorism and the beginning of the Third World War have changed the name of the game.
Yet without checks and balances, we will go too far in the other direction. The FBI in Boston is currently notorious for imprisoning innocent men to protect criminal allies. I would guess that the agents who initiated that strategy had good intentions. But good intentions go awry. Without transparency, there is no truth. Without truth, there is no accountability. Without accountability, there is no justice.
Hacking ensures transparency. Hacking is about being free in a world in which we understand that we will never be totally free.
Nevertheless, hackers must roll the boulder up the hill. They have no choice but to be who they are. But they must understand the context in which they work and the seriousness of the consequences when they don't.
Hackers must, as the Good Book says, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Richard Thieme is a business consultant, writer, and professional speaker focused on "life on the edge," in particular the human dimension of technology and the work place, change management and organizational effectiveness.
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