‘Good Guy’ Hackers Are Cracking Codes for Change—and Profit

Young cyber-warriors are being trained to use their highly advanced computer knowledge for good.

(Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Jun 18, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Hear the word hacker, and strong images come to mind: a shady, unshaven young man, perhaps, hunched over a glowing computer screen in a basement somewhere, using his skills to steal credit card numbers, drain a bank account, or obtain government secrets.

A coalition of computer experts, educators, and some hackers themselves, want to turn that image inside-out. Their efforts are helping to create a new generation of "white-hat hackers"—young cyber-warriors trained to use their highly advanced computer knowledge for good, maybe changing the world in the process.

The goal is "to protect systems by learning the techniques that the bad guys use," said Stephen Cobb, a senior researcher at ESET North America, an international cybersecurity firm that tests corporate and business websites for vulnerabilities. His company is a sponsor of Cyber Boot Camp, a week-long hacking seminar for promising San Diego high school students.

White-hat hackers are to computer programmers as editors are to writers, he said: "If you do it yourself, you don't always see the flaws."

Yet positive vibes of doing good isn't the only motivation for skilled young people who decide to become white hats. The rewards range from college scholarships and full-time jobs with entry-level salaries in the high five figures, to hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash prizes.

Someone could gain monumental street cred by breaking into some of the world's most sophisticated, technologically advanced, highly encrypted computer systems, like a hacker nicknamed Pinky Pie, a rising star in the world of white hats.

Last year, the anonymous teenager with a handle lifted from the My Little Pony cartoons pocketed nearly $100,000 after winning back-to-back competitions to test the security of Google's new Chrome search engine. Google, however, got something more valuable in return: The Internet behemoth, which invested millions of dollars developing Chrome, could have lost as much—and faced a PR nightmare—if a criminal hacker had exposed the vulnerabilities first.

Yet it's not just Silicon Valley driving the demand for outsiders who can identify chinks in the online armor.

The CEO of Target, for example, lost his job last month in part because a data breach by hackers led to the massive theft of consumers' credit card information. Similarly, officials at the online auction site eBay had plenty of explaining to do to its customers (and Wall Street) after a similar hack attack earlier this year.

With national security and lives at stake, cities, the military, and online entrepreneurs—all of which are heavily dependent on technology—are urgently recruiting skilled code breakers to test systems for vulnerabilities.

That's why hacking for good has become a lucrative growth industry, ranging from a conference in Las Vegas dedicated to raising "hacker kids" to the federal government, which offers internships and jobs and tries to speak in the hackers' own language.

The demand "is particularly strong with the government and the military," said Cobb. That's why, he explained, the San Diego boot camp not only consists of hands-on work in a computer lab but includes real-world lessons from a federal magistrate judge who deals in criminal hacking cases and coaching from members of the FBI's cyber squad.

Liz Fraumann, the executive director of Securing Our eCity Foundation of San Diego, one of the boot camp's sponsors, said the week-long program is an important contribution to the white-hat hacker movement.

As technology becomes more advanced—Cobb noted that virtually every aspect of our lives involves computers—the number of jobs to secure that technology worldwide has exponentially increased. But when it comes to filling those jobs in the U.S., Fraumann said, the demand is far greater than the supply.

The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. as 48th among all nations in its quality of math and science education, and the nation has languished far behind leaders like Norway and South Korea. At the same time, most economists agree the number of jobs that require some knowledge of math or computer science has shot up 31 percent in the last 15 years and is only going to increase.

That's why programs like the San Diego cyber boot camp is so important, Cobb said. Even if the teens decide not to become cybersecurity professionals, she added, "that knowledge will be of benefit to them" in a broad range of fields.

Recognizing the trend, the U.S. government last year created a splashy web infographic, loosely modeled on the historic "Uncle Sam Wants YOU!" military posters from World War II—only in this case, Uncle Sam is wearing a mask from the V for Vendetta graphic novel that's popular with the hacker set.

The Department of Defense and its main cybersecurity and technology research branch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have joined the competition, offering internships and scholarships for young people who show potential as white-hat hackers who can test their systems for weak security links.

There's even a push for greater diversity among hackers—including efforts by organizations like Black Girls Code, which encourages African American girls to learn the ins and outs of computer science, and the Level Playing Field Institute, a San Francisco Bay–area program, which hosts an intensive summer camp to introduce computer science and other STEM fields to kids in underserved communities.

Diversity among hackers is crucial because "our population is changing," said Courtney Tannenbaum, a senior researcher at the American Institute of Research. Her organization studies trends in STEM education, including computer sciences.

"The talent pool is so much more narrow" when women and people of color are excluded, she said. But if women and minorities are included, Tannenbaum added, "it can lead to higher wages, higher paying jobs, and more of a boost to the overall economy. It can help perpetuate a cycle of economic growth."

But it starts with encouraging young people early—which means programs like San Diego's Cyber Boot Camp, and r00tz Asylum (formerly known as the DEFCON hacker convention) are on the cutting edge of producing the next generation of white-hat cyber-warriors.

This article was created in association with the social action campaign for The Internet’s Own Boy, which is being released by TakeParts parent company, Participant Media, and filmbuff.