Hackers vs. suits: Why nerds become leakers

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June 11, 2013

When The Guardian unveiled its profile of Edward Snowden, it included a picture of the 29-year-old contractor with his laptop. On its back were stickers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group, and Tor, software that allows people to browse the Internet anonymously.

Ed Snowden.
Edward Snowden (The Guardian).

Laptops with EFF or Tor stickers are common at technology conferences, and people who have them tend to have a lot in common. They tend to be technically-savvy, skeptical of authority, and comfortable defying social conventions. Like Snowden, a high school dropout, they tend to have unconventional career paths.

These personality traits describe Bradley Manning, the young soldier who is accused of leaking secret documents to the WikiLeaks Web site. They also describe WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. And that probably isn't a coincidence.

The Silicon Valley investor Paul Graham has argued that the same personality traits that make people good at programming also cause them to have a disobedient attitude toward authority figures and social conventions. These programmers, who often describe themselves as hackers, are experts at examining complex systems and finding ways to make them work better. They tend to think about society as just another complex system in need of optimization, and this sometimes leads them to conclusions starkly at odds with conventional wisdom.

Our own Dylan Matthews recently wrote about Jason Trigg, a Wall Street programmer who concluded that he was morally obligated to give half his income to charity.

In the 1980s, an MIT programmer named Richard Stallman decided that it was immoral to distribute or use proprietary software. The result, three decades later, is the modern free software movement.

At events where most people were wearing suits, Aaron Swartz would show in blue jeans and a nerdy T-shirt. (creativecommoners)
At events where most people were wearing suits, Aaron Swartz would show up in blue jeans and a nerdy T-shirt. (creativecommoners)

The programmer, entrepreneur, and activist Aaron Swartz concluded it was immoral for the world's knowledge to be locked up in databases that were accessible only to wealthy universities. His efforts to download thousands of articles from an academic database led to his indictment on felony hacking charges. Facing the possibility of decades in jail, Swartz took his own life in January.

Manning and Snowden both concluded that they were morally obligated to release documents that reveal government misconduct. And Assange concluded he ought to help Manning distribute those documents to the world.

Obviously, hackers' curiosity and penchant for unconventional thinking can create tensions with authority figures, who hackers derisively refer to as "suits." They are sometimes viewed as prickly loners, and may not observe the social niceties that make offices function smoothly. But while hackers' disobedient tendencies give bosses heartburn, organizations can't get along without them. Their intellectual curiosity and knack for finding creative solutions to hard technical problems make them indispensable.

Hackers tend to be fierce advocates of civil liberties. The social news site Hacker News has been dominated by NSA news since The Guardian first broke news last week, and commenters have overwhelmingly supported Snowden.

"A society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than those sponsored by the most influential people," Graham wrote. In other words, hackers tend to be fierce civil libertarians because they're sensitive to the problems that occur when their habitual adversaries, the suits, gain too much power.

To help gain some insight into why so many hackers engage in revealing secret information or passionately support those who do, I called Jacob Appelbaum. He's a developer for the Tor project (though he emphasized he's speaking only for himself) and a longtime supporter of WikiLeaks.

He didn't think much of my thesis. "This is about bravery, it's not about learning how to use Linux," he told me. "The courage, the moral and ethical components of it, are far more important than the technology."

"An extremely moral person would have trouble just following orders," he said. "In the long tail of history just following orders is wrong. That's the key thing that really matters."

Of course, Appelbaum's explanation and mine aren't mutually exclusive. Stallman, Swartz and Trigg have each displayed their own kind of courage in their single-minded pursuit of their ideals. They did what they believed to be right heedless of how their actions would be viewed by those around them. So it's probably not a coincidence that men with their personality traits have been willing to risk everything to bring greater transparency to the national security state.

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Brad Plumer · June 11, 2013