Breaking Hacker Stereotypes

Part of a generation of boundary-pushers, hackers have been using their skills and ingenuity for the greater good. Equipped with a curious mindset and love for creatively overcoming limitations, many are passionate about making the world a safer and better place.

Not all hackers are criminals.

Mainstream portrayals of the faceless hacker wearing a black hoodie potentially distort how people should see hackers: they wear dresses and ties too, blending in quite nicely in business environments.

I spoke with Chris Roberts, the chief security architect at Acalvio Technologies. He helps enterprises find and mitigate cybersecurity vulnerabilities to reduce risk. Here are unedited excerpts from our conversation.


Marilia Wyatt: Before we dive into hacker stereotypes, can you tell us about your work?

Chris Roberts: Work’s split into several areas: The Acalvio stuff is looking at building up the Deception side of the world. The basic assumption is that computer number one is compromised and therefore how do you know that someone’s inside? Most companies are asleep at the wheel, especially in the S/M market when it comes to proactive, preventative and predictive security, so the aim of the Deception tech is to help change that landscape. Outside of that, there’s the assessment side of things, the maturity model work, and then obviously the no-more-passwords R&D I’m in the middle of.

Marilia Wyatt: Why do you think there is so much emphasis on painting hackers across the board as faceless and obscure loners?

Chris Roberts: I think we’ve done it to ourselves, at least in the past. We were separate, the geeks, the ones who seemed to think differently than most, the ones who understood the underlying “tick” of the digital universe. So, with that, we managed to separate ourselves. Let’s face it there’s a lot of us who do like to work on our own at least in part because it’s simpler, easier and quieter.

“You take that hooded geek and it fits perfectly with the media and unfortunately that’s never worn off. That really sucks, because we’re part of society and working to save it.”

Chris Roberts

Marilia Wyatt: What are the essential hacker ethics to promote?

Chris Roberts: Most of us are trying to fix the world and make it a safer place, from the technical securing of all the transportation, intermodal, ICS, and other critical systems to make sure that the banks don’t keep losing all the money. There are so many folks working to take technology to countries that desperately need it more than we do. They try to use it to save people, provide water and basic necessities, etc.

That’s the basic humanity behind what we do and who we are. You look at folks who band together to try and do some good.

Marilia Wyatt: How is the ethical hacking community collectively serving the greater good?

Chris Roberts: There’s a ton of examples, look at how Chris Hadnagy is working on the problems surrounding child material on the Internet and the folks behind that. Also, look at what Johnny Long and the team have done at Hackers For Charity, look at the numerous efforts with Veterans to name just three.

Marilia Wyatt: What is the most rewarding part of your profession?

Chris Roberts: Finding clients who want to learn, change and work on bettering themselves. Those are the folks I’ll happily hug and go an extra mile to make sure we’ve done the very best we possibly can to help them

Marilia Wyatt: Is there a significant barrier for the mainstream to understand that hackers can have diverse backgrounds and interests?

Chris Roberts: Oh hell yes. Let alone inside this industry, we’ve got a lot to learn about diverse backgrounds and how to make sure we don’t keep tripping up over ourselves. The world also has a long way to go to see past the tattoos, nails, hair, and clothing and accept us for who we are. Heck, isn’t that the world in general, though? Oh, and let’s face it, we’re not shining examples of humanity either; for example, when I ask the question on LinkedIn about what to call non-geek people and get everything from muggles to plebs.

“We need to take some time to accept the world around us.”

Marilia Wyatt: Do you see a need to distinguish between bad and good apples when writing the word ‘hacker.’ What’s your take on the issue?

Chris Roberts: Hacker is good, working on understanding tech, understanding what IS this world is about and how to do it differently and better. A criminal breaks in and steals shit, not a hacker.

Marilia Wyatt: Is there a better way to educate people about how the ethical hacking community uses their skills for good and bad apples for self-gain and destruction?

Marilia Wyatt: What would you like to change in the universe about the portrayal of hackers?

Chris Roberts: Guess tasers are out of the question at this point? We have to get better at communication. The world in general also needs to get dragged into this year and understand that they need to go past first impressions or their bigotry.

Chris Roberts:  I like my hoodies, but they don’t make me a bad person; let’s start there, something easy.

Marilia Wyatt: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Chris Roberts: I’m thankful for the continued stream of random neurons that keep hitting me with inspiration and ideas. I really would like more hours in the day and the ability to manipulate time sufficiently to get all the things done that I really want to work on.

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