Why do we need…Computer enthusiasts?

I use the term computer enthusiasts to describe a group of people most refer to as hackers, crackers, black hats, white hats, systems analysts, security testers, etc. This group of people test the limits of technology looking for weakness. Some try to make a living by looking for zero day exploits (flaws they can highlight to the company) and be paid for their efforts, others have malicious intent and retrieve data from company servers to sell. Security expert Keren Elazari noted in her 2014 TED talk that computer enthusiasts are the immune system of the world, able to find threats, at times making us sick, but forcing us to address and fix problems. 

Computer enthusiasts are often portrayed as either emo-goth types like Lisbeth Salander (Millennium trilogy), mentally disturbed drug addicts like Elliot Alderson (Mr Robot), or the typical overweight guy with glasses like Sylvester Dodd (Scorpion). Watch any of the talks from their conventions and you will find a group of people diverse enough to defy this stereotype.

There are three main annual conventions where like-minded people get together and discuss topics from the funny and thought provoking like social engineering to the very detailed and technical like cross site scripting. The largest is DEFCON (USA), followed by Chaos Communication Congress (Germany) and Blackhat (various). Common sense dictates that if you were to go to one of these conventions, that unless you have mad skillz and superb firewalls, leave the cellphone and laptop at home (and bring cash). 

One of the most well-known groups of computer enthusiasts is Anonymous. Their tagline is “We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us”. The subject of a later piece, these cyber terrorists/freedom fighters have made headlines for their involvement in the Arab Spring movement, supporting Occupy Wall Street and applying their brand of retribution towards social injustice. 

Sadly many law enforcement agencies and the judicial system lack the intelligence and understanding of computer technology to know what they are fighting against, as well as who their targets are. During the late ’90s, Kevin Mitnick spent eight months in solitary confinement because the judge had been convinced that he was able to launch a nuclear weapon by whistling into the phone. 

Independant News Programme, Democracy Now have done an exceptional job of covering the tragic case of Arron Swartz (1986-2013).  Swartz was initially charged with breaking and entering, charges that were later upgraded to data theft and wire fraud. His crime? Downloading over four million articles from JSTOR through his MIT account. Why? He believed that knowledge and information should be free. His crimes carried a fine of one million dollars and 35 years in federal prison. Arguments still persist over prosecutorial overreach and their comprehension of the subject matter. Sadly the law will never keep pace with technological process, and disinformation leads to ill-informed people who write our laws and judge our crimes but lack understanding of the topic. 

So why do we need computer enthusiasts? Elazari notes that “Hackers represent an exceptional force of change for the 21st century.” With nation states and non-governmental actors all collecting information for their own agenda, computer enthusiasts are the best solution for the lay people, the ones who do not know or care about how technology works and the broader impact on day to day living. Through their skills we are able to find new questions to ask. Beyond the obvious, “can it be hacked?”, but thinking about new questions like “when there is a breach, what will your company do about it?” Watching these conference presentations you realise that nothing is unhackable, and nothing is safe.


TL; DR—Computer enthusiasts force us to challenge our thinking, to rely less on technology, and to start asking questions.

This article first appeared in Issue 18, 2016.
Posted 12:56pm Sunday 7th August 2016 by Anthony Marris.