Inside the “Hacker” Culture of the Rich and Powerful

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When you picture a hacker, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

For most, the word elicits images of a person in a dark hoodie in a darker room hunched over a computer furiously typing lines of code. However, when it comes to our wider culture of hacking, it’s often the most wealthy and powerful people who “hack” societal rules.

That interpretation of hacking is the focus of the new book, “A Hacker’s Mind: How the Rich and Powerful Bend Society’s Rules, and How to Bend Them Back” by technologist and “security guru” Bruce Schneier. He spoke with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio about how things like tax loopholes exemplify how some powerful people subvert the rules.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Alright, actor Rami Malik in a hoodie sneaking into computer networks equals hacker—it’s like you should see his image if you look it up in the dictionary, hacker. But you think of hacking much more broadly, it’s almost a way of thinking.

Bruce Schneier: It really is a way of thinking. And actually, a hack follows the letter of the rule, even though it subverts the intent. You see rich people find tax loopholes, companies do it. Think of the way Uber is subverting the rules for taxis. Right, they’re not breaking the rules, but they’re finding loopholes or finding omissions, they’re finding technicalities to subvert the rules to their advantage.

Brancaccio: And Bruce, you write about this, it’s an issue when you’re worried about inequality in society, right, because already powerful—already wealthy—people often have access to tools. Sometimes they’re tools in the form of good lawyers who can help with the hacks.

Schneier: This is where hacks diverge in the computer world, in the real world. In the computer world, we have that vision of hacks being antisocial kids in hoodies. In the real world, they’re more likely to be the rich and powerful. They’re more likely to employ expertise to find the hacks. And then when they find one, employee attorneys to make sure those are considered legal and they’re not patched.

Brancaccio: Now, this has been the winter of artificial intelligence, at least as a cultural moment. And you make an interesting point in the book: AI can do hacking, if there are not protections built in, but also AI could be hacked, right?

Schneier: So certainly AI are computer systems they can be hacked. There’s a lot of research in how AI systems can be abused. But I’m writing about the other way: can an AI find hacks? So imagine feeding an AI the entire nation’s tax codes. What AI could do is just change the speed, scale, scope and complexity of this process. And suddenly, we’re finding loopholes that are far more complex than humans can find. And our prevention mechanisms, our recovery mechanisms, are still at human speeds. But the notion that we need to be able to patch to update our laws as technology changes, as situations change, is really important.

Brancaccio: You also argue that transparency has to be a key part of this. And a lot of, for instance, AI is quite opaque in its processes. But tell me about inclusivity. That’s also one of the important words that you highlight when you think about remedies for hacking.

Schneier: I mean the worry about AI is less the AI and more that Google owns it. Microsoft owns it, Amazon owns it. It’s the already powerful using it against us. So one of the things we need to do, aside from transparency, is to democratize these technologies. if they become inclusive, they become tools of the citizen against power rather than tools of the powerful.

Categories: Audio, Recorded Interviews, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.