Portland Confidential: What It Means to Be a Hacker
by Rose C.
Writing this at a time when sadly, I will not be able to stay in Portland, my chosen city, for very much longer. I won’t bore you with the details. My apartment has ventilation and habitability issues. I thought for a long time that I could mitigate the poor air quality with houseplants, fans, and open windows but it’s no longer practical. Not with winter coming on.
I hope to keep PDX Local going strong, though. I will always be a Portlandian in my heart. One of these days I will get around to putting up formal writers’ guidelines. In the meantime, if you have a story, wherever you live, feel free to get in contact and pitch. Unsolicited submissions are also welcome although we don’t print every story that is sent our way.
Anyway, back to today’s chosen topic.
Lesson #1 – Hackers are never as cool as they think they are. As I once wrote to the leader of my Hackerspace in an email, “Hackers think they are cool. Everyone else thinks we are dangerous criminals.”
Rami Malek notwithstanding. His character on Mr. Robot will always be cool, at least to me.
Lesson #2 – Not all hackers are criminals. Ummm, probably not even most. We do tend to think that laws around media piracy are for other people, and freely share audio, video, game, and text files whenever we can. There is so much corporate censorship already in the world that we often feel justified in going down this road. As for me personally, I don’t steal media or make unauthorized copies. I am extraordinarily law abiding.
Hackers like me, who refrain from breaking the law, are sometimes known as whitehats. I prefer the term “lawful and ethical hacker,” because it has no racist connotations. (Criminal hackers used to be called blackhats.)
This has less to do with the chances of getting caught and more to do with the fact that I am an artist as well as a programmer. I believe that creative work should be compensated, and that creators deserve the opportunity to make a living. When only wealthy trust fund kids have the opportunity to write memoirs or play in bands, we know that something is wrong with our universe.
Lesson #3 – IF YOU CALL YOURSELF A HACKER, YOU WILL GET HACKED. Certain people view the label as an invitation to test out your defenses. It can’t be helped.
It may not be anything bad. Maybe just a little spyware, or a Bitcoin miner hidden unbeknownst to you on your computer. Or it might be more severe. So be careful about using the term lightly. Many hacks can be prevented, but as long as people write new software, there will always be new vulnerabilities.
Back when I ran a web hosting company, I asked my former sysadmin what he thought about the slogan, “Your money back if you get hacked.” He wouldn’t go near it. While he was working part-time for me, he was also a VP managing cybersecurity and automation for a major national bank. You would have to assume he knew what he was talking about.
I don’t practice pentech, as hacking techniques designed to crack and illegally break open other peoples’ systems are known. So if I’m not pirating music and movies, and I also don’t try to break into other people’s systems, why do I call myself a hacker?
Lesson #4 – Hackers hack. It’s what we do. What I mean by hack is simple. We like to build things with electronics. Honestly, I would probably pay good money just to have the opportunity to keep doing this type of work. Collaboration, and with it the ethos of Free and Open Source Software (or FOSS) is also key to our worldview. We have our own language, and our own “in jokes.”
Here’s one you’ve probably seen before. The only other form of creativity that comes even close to being this collaborative without being rigidly hierarchical is music. That is probably part of why enjoy seeing live bands and being part of the Portland music scene so much; unfortunately I can’t carry a tune or play an instrument so I had to learn to code instead.
Still learning, actually. And probably will be for life.
Originally published on December 6, 2022. This post has been modified from its original version.