Weighing the Risk of Hiring Hackers

By Bruce Schneier
Information Security
June 2010

This essay previously appeared in Information Security as the first half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's half is here.

Any essay on hiring hackers quickly gets bogged down in definitions. What is a hacker, and how is he different from a cracker? I have my own definitions, but I'd rather define the issue more specifically: Would you hire someone convicted of a computer crime to fill a position of trust in your computer network? Or, more generally, would you hire someone convicted of a crime for a job related to that crime?

The answer, of course, is "it depends." It depends on the specifics of the crime. It depends on the ethics involved. It depends on the recidivism rate of the type of criminal. It depends a whole lot on the individual.

Would you hire a convicted pedophile to work at a day care center? Would you hire Bernie Madoff to manage your investment fund? The answer is almost certainly no to those two -- but you might hire a convicted bank robber to consult on bank security. You might hire someone who was convicted of false advertising to write ad copy for your next marketing campaign. And you might hire someone who ran a chop shop to fix your car. It depends on the person and the crime.

It can get even murkier. Would you hire a CIA-trained assassin to be a bodyguard? Would you put a general who led a successful attack in charge of defense? What if they were both convicted of crimes in whatever country they were operating in? There are different legal and ethical issues, to be sure, but in both cases the people learned a certain set of skills regarding offense that could be transferable to defense.

Which brings us back to computers. Hacking is primarily a mindset: a way of thinking about security. Its primary focus is in attacking systems, but it's invaluable to the defense of those systems as well. Because computer systems are so complex, defending them often requires people who can think like attackers.

Admittedly, there's a difference between thinking like an attacker and acting like a criminal, and between researching vulnerabilities in fielded systems and exploiting those vulnerabilities for personal gain. But there is a huge variability in computer crime convictions, and -- at least in the early days -- many hacking convictions were unjust and unfair. And there's also a difference between someone's behavior as a teenager and his behavior later in life. Additionally, there might very well be a difference between someone's behavior before and after a hacking conviction. It all depends on the person.

An employer's goal should be to hire moral and ethical people with the skill set required to do the job. And while a hacking conviction is certainly a mark against a person, it isn't always grounds for complete non-consideration.

"We don't hire hackers" and "we don't hire felons" are coarse generalizations, in the same way that "we only hire people with this or that security certification" is. They work -- you're less likely to hire the wrong person if you follow them -- but they're both coarse and flawed. Just as all potential employees with certifications aren't automatically good hires, all potential employees with hacking convictions aren't automatically bad hires. Sure, it's easier to hire people based on things you can learn from checkboxes, but you won't get the best employees that way. It's far better to look at the individual, and put those check boxes into context. But we don't always have time to do that.

Last winter, a Minneapolis attorney who works to get felons a fair shake after they served their time told of a sign he saw: "Snow shovelers wanted. Felons need not apply." It's not good for society if felons who have served their time can't even get jobs shoveling snow.

earlier essay: The Internet: Anonymous Forever
later essay: The Failure of Cryptography to Secure Modern Networks
categories: Computer and Information Security
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..