Hacking is not about creating viruses, breaking into computer systems or even rainbow-dyed hair, but is instead about the search for truth, critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge, according to Richard Thieme, an author, consultant and former Episcopal priest, who addressed attendees at Def Con in Las Vegas.
Thieme discussed hacking in its original meaning — the discovery of and mucking about with the basic components of any system, rather than the more popularized definition that connotes malicious computer use.
“My belief is that hacking, above all … is about the passion and obsession for knowledge and truth,” Thieme said. Hacking is also about freedom and the attempts to maximize it, he said.
Such values are more important than ever, in the post-Sept. 11 world, he said. After Sept. 11, “the stakes are different, the game has changed. And therefore, you have to be more careful,” he said.
Hackers need to be more aware of what their actions mean, but they must also agitate for freedom and truthfulness, he said. With the rise in government surveillance, the possibility of propaganda campaigns and disinformation and other responses to terrorism, hackers can help guard American freedoms, he said.
“The danger is that through the fighting … we will come to look just like the enemy … because we will use the same techniques and tactics,” he said.
Thieme said it was troubling that those who seek to maximize personal freedom after Sept. 11 also feel the need to simultaneously declare their patriotism in order to stave off criticism.
“This community is the only antidote to the distortion of the truth in the public space” because it is obsessed with knowledge, passionate about understanding things and committed to discovering the truth, he said.
Hacking is “the antidote to the all-too-human tendency to not caring or not finding the truth,” he added.
Truth must be searched for in daily interactions, not just online, he said.
Thieme told the convention attendees from government and law enforcement agencies not to assume that hackers were automatically the enemy. By the same token, he cautioned hackers not to see everyone is government as out to get them.
“You don’t know who the enemy is until you test their heart and soul,” he said.
Though it may not have tested their hearts and souls, a pair of Canadian researchers have been spending the past three years studying the minds of hackers.
In a study consisting of a questionnaire and longer-form answer section started at the hacker convention H2K and Def Con 8 in 2000, Bernadette Schell, dean of Business Information Technology, University of Ontario Institute of Technology and John Dodge, professor at the School of Commerce of Commerce and the Department of Math and Computer Science at Laurentian University, profiled 216 hackers and their styles of thinking, coping with life and problem-solving.
The researchers found that the respondents, whose median age was 25, have “extremely low” tendencies towards terrorist and obsessive traits and possess “relatively balanced temperaments,” according to Schell.
Respondents also tested as particularly creative, she said, noting that the top score for creativity was 20 and that 62 percent of those polled scored 15 or higher on the test.
The combination of creativity and problem-solving styles revealed a commonality between hackers and a group that might not expect they have much in common with hackers: corporate presidents and chief executive officers. The combination of analytical and directive problem solving styles is shared by both hackers and corporate executives, Dodge said.