Everything Is Hackable

Every year, an army of hackers takes aim at the tax code.

The tax code is not computer code, but it is a series of rules—supposedly deterministic algorithms—that take data about your income and determine the amount of money you owe. This code has vulnerabilities, more commonly known as loopholes. It has exploits; those are tax avoidance strategies. There is an entire industry of black-hat hackers who exploit vulnerabilities in the tax code: We call them accountants and tax attorneys.

Hacking isn’t limited to computer systems, or even technology. Any system of rules can be hacked. In general terms, a hack is something that a system permits, but that is unanticipated and unwanted by its designers. It’s unplanned: a mistake in the system’s design or coding. It’s clever. It’s a subversion, or an exploitation. It’s a cheat, but only sort of. Just as a computer vulnerability can be exploited over the internet because the code permits it, a tax loophole is "allowed" by the system because it follows the rules, even though it might subvert the intent of those rules.

Once you start thinking of hacking in this way, you’ll start seeing hacks everywhere. You can find hacks in customer reward programs; in financial systems; in politics; in lots of economic, political, and social systems; and against our cognitive functions. Airline frequent-flier mileage runs are a hack. The filibuster was originally a hack, one invented in 60 BCE by Cato the Younger, a Roman senator. Gerrymandering is a hack. Hedge funds are full of hacks. So are professional sports: curving a hockey stick, hitting a cricket ball over your head, or showing up on a Formula One racetrack with a six-wheeled car (the Tyrell racing team in 1975—really).

Applying this computer framework more broadly is a way to tease out a lot of why today’s economic, political, and social systems are failing us so badly. And by thinking that way, we can apply what we have learned about hacking defenses in the computer world to those more general hacks.

All systems are hackable. Even the best-thought-out sets of rules will be incomplete or inconsistent. They’ll have ambiguities, and things the designers haven’t thought of. As long as there are people who want to subvert the goals of a system, there will be hacks.

Here’s the thing: Hacks aren’t necessarily bad. They’re how systems evolve. Curved hockey sticks made for more exciting play, as did scooping a cricket pitch—they both became part of the games. Sometimes the hack doesn’t stick; that six-wheeled race car was declared against the rules in 1983. Mileage runs are still legal, but airlines have modified their frequent-flier programs to make them less effective. Some people refer to the filibuster as "the soul of the Senate."

A successful hack changes the system as it is repeatedly used and becomes popular. It changes how the system works, either because the system gets patched to prevent it or expands to encompass it. Hacking is a process by which those who use a system change it for the better, in response to new technology, new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world.

This is hacking as evolution. Hacks underpin modern banking, high-frequency trading, and gig-economy companies. These are all innovations that have changed society. And it continues.

So, yes, people often use hacking to try to gain an advantage over everyone else. But harnessed well, hacking is a way of accelerating system evolution by incorporating an adversary in the process. And this sort of evolution is essential if systems are to survive. An ossified system can’t respond to hacks, and therefore has trouble evolving. Contemporary political science research suggests that when those in power refuse to allow their society to evolve, their entrenchment can end up breaking the political system as a whole.

Here’s a more modern example: People are hacking the notion of corporate personhood in attempts to win rights for nature, or great apes, or rivers. The very concept of corporate personhood is a hack of the 14th Amendment, which lays out the rules of citizenship and the rights of citizens.

Hacking provides such an evolutionary path. Whenever a court takes an old law and applies it to a new situation, it’s hacking that law. Whenever someone invents a new trick to bypass an old law, they’re hacking that law. The legislative process is slow; hacking can be much faster.

Society needs the innovative power of hacking. Today, because of the power of technology, damaging hacks can do more damage more quickly than ever before. But while hacking could soon be an existential risk—consider what could happen when artificial intelligence starts discovering and executing new hacks, and what happens if they affect climate—there is also reason for optimism. The computing-driven technological advances that will exacerbate hacking also have the potential to make things better by defending against bad hacks while finding and promoting the good ones. The trick is going to be getting the governance systems right.

We must build resilient governing structures that can quickly and effectively respond to hacks. The hacker always thinks his particular loophole or trick is a good idea, but society as a whole needs to be able to figure out if it actually is. It won’t do any good if it takes years to patch the tax code, or if a legislative hack becomes so entrenched that it can’t be patched for political reasons. We need society’s rules and laws to be as patchable as your computers and phones.

Categories: Hacking

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.