In the information age, data is the new currency and access to it is power. With battle cries such as “Information wants to be free”, “Hack the planet” and “we are legion” – in recent years, hackers have risen to infamy. But, as more of our lives go digital, and we come to rely increasingly on internet enabled devices, the security of this software and hardware will become vital for everyone. And hackers will be our best hope to achieve this. They are the internet’s immune system.
That’s because hacking can, and often does, exposes vulnerabilities, supplies innovations, and demonstrates what is possible and how consumers actually want to use technology. When a hacker breaks into something, it reveals a weakness that can then be fixed. That’s why companies that once fought hackers, now invite them to innovate – and more and more organizations can embrace the creative aspects of hacker culture. Of course mainstream media often follows stories of hackers with a mixture of awe, schadenfreude and excitement. They are unaccountable, they can wreak havoc, deal mob justice, while hiding in basements and so on. But the authorities – and much of society writ large – often overestimate hackers’ capabilities but underestimate their ethics and positive purpose. (In many places, some hackers have become more protective of democracy than certain governments.) True, hackers often operate on a spectrum of choice. Some things they do can lead to confused or tragic results. Some have brilliant outcomes.
The choices hackers make greatly depend on how society treats and reacts to them. It’s not inherently good or bad, it’s a new form of digital literacy: taking something apart, and putting it back together. This has an incredible capacity for creativity and innovation, not just disruption and damages. As private companies worry about their data security, or the latest internet enabled device, there is no better way than asking a hacker to try to break it and then share the results with them. It’s stress testing par excellence. Hackathons, open source software projects and multibillion companies started by hackers are living proof of that. We need hackers now, and we’ll need them more in the years ahead. We must ask ourselves what we can do to help them shape society, industry and democracies future for the better.