This past weekend, the Polytechnic Institute of NYU played host to more than 1,800 teams of hackers competing in a 72-hour tournament — amassing in the world’s largest-to-date hackathon. The event, sponsored by Google, Facebook and the Department of Homeland Security, capped off NYU-Poly’s Cyber Security Awareness Week in an effort to make significant improvements to cybersecurity. Events like CSAW hosted by NYU-Poly last weekend promise to catalyze a distinct shift in how both the public and media speak about hacker culture.
Interestingly, the term hacking originally had little to do with breaking into banks, the CIA’s website or the Pentagon. It simply meant to use open-source software in a creative or novel way, and was typically used in reference to laymen or hobbyists — computer geeks as they are sometimes called. Broad controversy over so-called hacktivist organizations such as Wikileaks and Anonymous have contributed to an already negative stigma around hacker culture. In response to two prominent hacking conferences last month, FOX News wrote that “when you bring thousands of hackers together, it is likely to be a recipe for terror.” Hacking is a technique that can be used for either negative or positive ends rather than an act of criminality or an agent of terror.
Government sponsored events on cybersecurity encourage invention, innovation and entrepreneurship. Indeed, the government has always been a major catalyst in technological advancement. But it is important to note this event is sponsored by the DHS, an organization that specializes in code-breaking whose inner workings have been put under intense scrutiny after the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
While the NSA’s use of hackers is controversial, when the recipe to break security barriers is made public, hacking is beneficial by exposing the vulnerability of computer-based systems. At the 2010 Black Hat conference, for instance, a researcher showed how to get two different models of ATMs to release money. Last week, the Chaos Computer Club bypassed the fingerprint-based security of the new iPhone. Such news not only forces manufacturers and developers to improve their products, but also warns users to be careful and look for more secure alternatives while the problems are unsolved.
The NYU-Poly hackathon is another example of the capabilities of hacking to improve cybersecurity, and it encourages debate among students on the need for safeguards in an increasingly digital world.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 23 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]