How to Know if You’re a Hacker, and Other Life Hacks

In “A Hacker’s Mind,” Bruce Schneier goes beyond the black-hoodie clichés.

In the popular imagination, a hacker has one of two goals: to crusade as a modern-day folk hero against totalitarianism and corporate duplicity, or to steal your identity. In either case, he—for pop culture dictates that the hacker must be a man—looks much the same in his dark, windowless room, his pallid features bathed in the glow of computer monitors (at least three) and swaddled in a cloud of e-cig vapor. He’s a furtive underdog consigned to a realm of greasy pizza boxes, Guy Fawkes masks and, especially, black hoodies, which hackers are apparently issued at birth.

As near as I can tell, Bruce Schneier has never been photographed in a black hoodie, despite his hacker’s pedigree. And this is fitting: His new book, “A Hacker’s Mind,” intends to broaden the public’s sense of who hackers are and what defines a hack. A fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Schneier has made a career of explaining cybersecurity to a lay audience. In 2014, after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on N.S.A. surveillance, Schneier briefed six members of Congress on the import of the revelations.

“A Hacker’s Mind” reads like just such a briefing—fused with a manifesto about power and compliance. Hacking, Schneier argues, need not involve computers or even technology; a hack is merely “an activity allowed by the system that subverts the goal or intent of the system.” Any system, from a slot machine to the U.S. tax code, can be hacked. Hairsplitting, workarounds, weaselly little shortcuts: These are all hacks, and if you’ve ever found yourself uttering phrases like “technically legal” or “gray area,” you might be a hacker. The odds increase with your net worth. While “we conventionally think of hacking as something countercultural,” Schneier writes, “it’s more common for the wealthy to hack systems to their own advantage,” occupying “a middle ground between cheating and innovation.” To steal a car by smashing its window and hot-wiring it would be merely criminal; a true hacker would coax the car’s computer into unlocking itself.

Viewed this way, hacking becomes a story as old as time—“a natural part of the human condition.” Schneier provides a litany of historical examples. The turducken, for instance, he frames as a hack of 14th-century Florentine sumptuary laws, which prohibited more than a single roast at a banquet but did not expressly forbid roasts served inside other roasts. Johann Tetzel, a 16th-century Dominican friar, hacked the Catholic system of indulgences, intended to promote charitable giving by offering sinners the chance to buy forgiveness from the church. Much as contemporary bankers invent abstruse financial instruments, Tetzel developed indulgences for the deceased. He also sold buy-now-sin-later indulgences, granting proleptic forgiveness for future crimes. And then there’s Voltaire, who in 1729 banded together with some pals to hack a French lottery. Since the payout exceeded the value of all the available tickets, he and his cohort simply bought up the whole supply.

“A Hacker’s Mind” contains a blizzard of such anecdotes, many of them clever—the telltale sign of a hack, Schneier believes, is that it elicits “grudging admiration (possibly in addition to righteous anger).” He recounts hacks of long-distance calling plans, A.T.M.s, children’s chat software, hockey sticks, robots, vermin-control plans, frequent-flier-mile programs and luxury real estate. Filibustering is a hack, as is gerrymandering. Some hacks are maddeningly minute yet perpetrated on a global scale. Goldman Sachs manipulated the price of aluminum, which is calculated in part by its availability. They shifted their aluminum supply from warehouse to warehouse, trucking it around every day for years. Because it was constantly moving, it was harder to get—a ploy that added up to a loss of $5 billion for consumers.

If this sounds dizzying, it is. Reading “A Hacker’s Mind,” I began to envision modernity as a rat’s nest of interconnected Rube Goldberg machines held together with Scotch tape and faith: a maze of leaks and patches just begging to be hacked. Only the rich and powerful, Schneier believes, have the resources to exploit these vulnerabilities, and they’re seldom penalized; instead, their hacks are normalized and celebrated. They can sniff out loopholes, laxities and weak spots in any law or code, framing this as strategy rather than subversion. Schneier reserves special ire for venture-capital funding and private equity. Infusions of venture capital mean that “companies don’t need to compete with each other in the traditional manner,” or worry about supply and demand—it’s V.C.’s, not the forces of the market, who decide whether companies sink or swim. “It’s basically central planning by elite investors, something that would be called communism if the government did it.”

I’m always happy to read about how the rich are leaching the lifeblood from society, but however appealing its argument, “A Hacker’s Mind” can be tedious. Few of its chapters are longer than five pages, and Schneier jumps between topics too freely to gain momentum. Given the massive scope of hacking as he defines it, his prose must occasionally wash into bland generality, as when he writes, “Resilience is an important concept, one that applies to everything from the human body to the planetary ecosystem.”

What he’s proposing, ultimately, is a kind of gestalt shift, a means of understanding our lives in terms of their systems and weaknesses, with hacks at the center of a ceaseless struggle between the letter and the spirit of the law. It’s an eye-opening way to think, but his examples, as they pile up, give rise to helplessness. “It’s hard not to be depressed about all of this societal hacking,” Schneier writes, adding that it’s “going to get worse.”

He sketches a few sensible solutions, noble-minded but too vague to be of real comfort. “We need society’s rules and laws to be as patchable as your computers and phones,” he suggests. But it’s tough to imagine any governing body nimble enough to address the constant, increasingly sophisticated stress-test of norms and institutions by those with limitless capital. At one point, Schneier compares hackers to genies, who are “very precise about the wording of wishes, and can be maliciously pedantic when granting them.” It was the fatalism of the metaphor that lingered in my mind: “The genie will always be able to hack your wish.”

Categories: A Hacker’s Mind, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.