Thursday, August 27, 2015

The ethics of hacking

After my adventures with reading real stories from World War II (Going Solo and Maus) I decided that I needed to participate in some fictional interaction with the war to end all wars. I know I probably should have looked into more memoirs and histories and soberly and seriously reflected on man's inhumanity to man and all that jazz, but I was just emotionally exhausted and needed some unambiguously good guys to kick ass so I reread Cryptonomicon. It doesn't hurt that the fictional WWII good guys are geeks, and that the fictional modern good guys are focusing on preventing future holocausts either when it comes to feeling better about reading some heavy shit. I'm not sure how much of that last sentence made sense, so I'll just say I like geeks and am very glad that many varieties of geek seem to give a shit about the world.

Which is kind of the defining geek characteristic that's explored through a number of different characters in Cryptonomicon. Geeks are people who notice something wrong in the world (whether it's issues of InfoSec protocols, a poorly programmed operating system, free speech, or the shaky physics of Iron Man) and won't shut up about it until it's fixed, and frequently won't shut up about it until they do the fixing themselves.

Cryptonomicon is a book that it - unsurprisingly - largely about problems of privacy. Stephenson does a really fantastic job of exploring what a dual-edged sword privacy can be; half of his characters are invested in code breaking for what's basically the good of the entire world but who all recognize the issue of applying these same techniques to individuals. The book makes its case for strong crypto but also makes the argument that it's wrong that individuals have to rely on strong crypto or be subject to the same treatment as, say, Nazi communications were in 1940. I'm not going to lie, there's some cognitive dissonance in that. There is a character who cheerfully discards the idea that gentlemen shouldn't read one another's mail because reading each other's mail is how the Allies won the war; he's presented as repugnant, and the idea that a government would examine its citizens private communications is repugnant (and, unfortunately, just the world we live in now), but the point seems to be that cracking is a last resort and the sorts of people who are GOOD at cryptography should keep in mind that they are handling the weapon that could next be turned against themselves.

Which makes it a really good thing that Stephenson (Stephenson in particular, not that anyone else could have done it, but that his name is attached to it as a geek himself and as the author of one of the first major books about web culture) wrote this book. Stephenson is one of the five authors who the majority of my tech friends always bring up (Gibson, Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury are the others) as their favorite authors. The InfoSec crew I hang out with have almost all read the tremendous brick that is Cryptonomicon even if they aren't really into reading. It's one of those books that's talked about using the same reverent tones that Christians use when talking about the Bible - it's a must-read, a guiding star, a moral code, an inspiration, and wonderful entertainment to everyone who's ever looked at a computer and seen something wrong that they must make right.

Anyway I enjoy the hell out of it every time I read it and every time I read it it makes me think very seriously about the questions currently surrounding privacy, intellectual property, liberty, free speech, and generally not living in a police state. It's not really what you could call an easy read, it's got some not-too-complicated but decidedly tedious discussions of math, crypto, and random numbers scattered throughout. But those things are all worth reading because it makes you want to be better at the things under discussion (and it's not like it's something as detailed, complicated, and terrifying as the orbital mechanics lectures in Anathem).

So if you're even slightly inclined to check out this odd book about computer geeks, please do. If you're a computer geek who wants to consider yourself a hacker it's almost a moral imperative that you read this book. But don't read it because of that - read it because it's fun.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. Avon Fiction. New York: New York. 2002. (1999).

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