At TED2014, conservationist Jon Mooallem gave a talk on how changing narratives could help save endangered species. The gist was this: too many wild animals are wrongly portrayed, and those that are are much more likely to face extermination. He proved the power of telling a story and the pitfalls of falling victim to widely-held narratives. In our modern world, hackers have been portrayed a certain way; they’re criminals, the enemy, a parasite. But are we being fair to hackers? In her talk, cybersecurity expert Keren Elezari contends that we’re not.
She began by telling the story of Barbany Jack, a hacker who learned to get an ATM to spit out money without taking any out of a bank account, or without the need for a card. Jack could have turned his knowledge into a career as a criminal, and a lucrative one at that. But he decided to use his knowledge for figuring out kinks and imperfections in digital systems for the greater good. Among the things that Jack was able to “hack” were insulin pumps and pacemakers, and was scheduled to give a presentation on hacking heart implants before his untimely death in 2012. The lesson of Jack’s life was that hacking can diagnose problems, as Elezari put it, “Sometimes you have to demonstrate a threat to spark a solution.”
Hackers can certainly be scary, but the individual choices they make can have dramatic outcomes. In that sense, hackers are like an immune system for the information age. Sure, sometimes they can make us sick, but they’re also often our best defense. By hacking into files and systems, hackers have forced companies and institutions to fix their problems. Like Jack, this could have profound impacts, if say, the target is medical equipment. While it remains controversial because of it’s legality, there can be an ultimate good behind these activities.
Another area that hackers have made a difference is in nations where revolutions have taken place. In Egypt and Syria, for example, hackers were able to help citizens bypass oppressive censorships and remain online. In Syria, an ironic twist was that the government used hackers of their own to deploy on the front lines, resulting in the creation of the Syrian Electronic Army.
So there’s no question that hackers can have a positive impact on the world. They’re a gateway to a freer society and can be a force for social, political and and military influence. In a world where access to information is a powerful currency, hackers are the ones who may be the most sought after. How we view them, though, has a long way to go, and in order for them to be a force for positive change, we may have to reconsider how we view them in the first place.