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Monthly Archives: October 2017

This is a post to all of my family in the hacker community.  But it is not about hackers nor is it about hacking.

Rather, this post is inspired by the illustrious and erudite Maggie McNeill, who on Friday the 13th made her customary statement regarding allies & the need to speak out for those whose voices deserve amplification.  She describes this day, whenever it falls on the calendar, as “the day I ask people who aren’t themselves sex workers to stand up for us.”

You may find it remarkable that someone in the industry would make such a statement.  Perhaps you are even surprised that this woman would publicly identify as a courtesan, as opposed to “shamefully” keeping this part of her life cloaked in mystery and secrecy.  Allow me to (hopefully) open a few minds.  The hacker community should not feel significant surprise were I to reveal to you that — shocker — an often-misunderstood subculture existing “outside” of many of society’s norms is frequently the subject of unnecessary and undeserved scorn and criticism.


“A hacker convention?!?” the old fellow gasped, ostensibly to his elderly wife but also loud enough so that everyone else in the elevator could hear him. “What’s next?  Will this hotel hold an ax-murderer convention soon??”  This is a story related by Thorn, an old friend of mine who attended the earliest ShmooCon conferences with us.  In the elevator of the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington, DC, he was answering a little old couple’s query as to why so many individuals with unconventional attire and particularly strident-colored hair were present in one of the most posh and upstanding hotels within our nation’s capital.  Upon his frank and uncompromising answer, “we’re all here for the hacker convention,” the two looked appalled.  Their comment, delivered perhaps somewhat in jest but clearly rooted in skepticism and trepidation, made it clear that they had been fed a steady diet of fear and contempt by the mass media when it came to hackers.  Naturally, one would presume that they had never (knowingly) befriended or even spoken to one.

I do not know what transpired after that, but presumably the old couple made haste to their room and possibly searched for diversion (or even alternate accommodation) elsewhere in the city… which is a shame, given that they would have had the perfect opportunity to speak with and even start to understand some real, non-scary hackers if they had just sat in the hotel bar and met others from the conference.


Sex workers face many of the same stigmas that hackers do.  In addition to being misunderstood by the general public so often that they may choose to not even self-identify publicly unless they are in “safe” environments and surrounded by their own kind, the mainstream portrayal of such groups of people is riddled with the most ostentatious and over-blown stereotypes.  Don’t believe me?  Point your internet tube at just a few google image searches.

If we search for the word “hacker” what are we going to see for the results?

That’s right.  Black hoodies and balaclavas everywhere.  The stock image sites are among the worst offenders, as always.  But that’s what editors (and, by extension, their readership) sees in their mind when they hear the word “hacker.”  By and large, we are seen as scary, malicious, and out to cause mayhem.

Let’s try a google image search for “prostitute” now (forgive the use of a vulgar and deprecated term… but you’ll see where I’m going with this in a moment.)

Is it much of a surprise to anyone that the trope of the “at-risk street walker” is far-and-away the most returned image?  (Again, most notably, by the stock image photo sites.)

I put it to you that the “prostitutes” in these photos are no more representative of the sex work population than the “hackers” in the earlier images are of our own community.  For a taste of balance and a bit more realism, what happens if we were to put our thumb on the scale and tilt Google’s results more in the realm of actual human beings?

For instance, how about a search for “hacker space”…

In addition to showing some cool project workbenches, this search query actually shows what real hackers look like.  That is to say, they are just typical people (although often with above-average intelligence, which many times manifests itself as a lack of desire to play by the rules or be bound into systems that are artificially limiting or oppressive.)

Instead of a loaded term like “prostitute” or “hooker” let’s look at the google image results for “sex worker”…

And now yet again, we see a much more realistic representation of this population.  While we still sometimes see the “red light district” style of imagery, many of these results are much more human in their representation.  These aren’t caricatures or two-dimensional abstracts… these are real, genuine people.  They are concerned with the happiness and safety of others, as well as of themselves.


And that is where the real parallel in this narrative lives, my friends.

How many hackers bemoan the news when a legislator (who has no literacy in technology) proposes legislation to weaken encryption or allow censorship on the internet?  How many times do we pull our hair out while discussing the latest scare tactics used by police or Congress as they demonize our community and push for tighter regulation and stiffer penalties?  The CFAA, the DMCA, the Wassenaar controls… all of these were written by outsiders who feared our community but don’t know the first thing about our community.

Sex workers face the exact same uphill battle.

How many of you have heard about new technologies (or even new groups of cyber-experts in our own industry) designed to fight the “growing scourge of human trafficking” or something similar?  There are no shortage of politicians lining up to get in front of news cameras as they decry a vaguely-defined problem, offer no hard evidence, and then propose silver-bullet solutions that will deeply impact an entire community without ever actually speaking to that community.


Hackers and sex workers are equally and simultaneously victims of respectability politics on the part of our legislators.  It’s a tired but reliable formula that delivers votes at the ballot box and tax dollars to law enforcement efforts…

  1. Choose a marginalized group of “outsiders” who already have a stigma in the minds of the general public (see our google searches earlier)
  2. Whip up public panic using sensationalist headlines and pearl-clutching testimony by well-dressed politicos
  3. Exclaim loudly that “if only people cared enough about the future we’re building for our children” things could be different
  4. Propose new laws.  NOTE – new legislation will always tighten a noose, it is never acceptable to reduce government power or regulation
  5. Decry and shout-down any detractors as criminals and a “bad influence”
  6. If detractors are well-read, highly-published academics who are part of the very group being targeted by new laws, smear them as no better than their worst hardened criminal peers with no redeeming qualities.  If they still do not remain silent, target them for arrest or harassment within the corridors of any “legitimate” vocation they may have
  7. Pass new laws that make the broader public nod their heads in silent (and mildly disinterested) assent
  8. No matter what the new laws were ostensibly supposed to accomplish… crack down on the young, on the poor, and on minorities… like always
  9. Trot out the occasional “major victory” by law enforcement.  The actual community of experts will decry among themselves how such “victories” accomplish nothing (and often are smoke-and-mirror cases with no merit or factual basis at all) but the general public will remark in a vague sort of way “oh yeah, i saw something on the evening news about that major bust the cops did a few months back” when the topic comes up at Thanksgiving.


The next time someone tells you that they have “heard about a new project to help curb human trafficking” I would like you to imagine that, instead, they have just told you about a “new government encryption key escrow that will help us fight terrorism.”  Our response should always be to ask the following questions…

  1. How many actual experts in the industry have you consulted with when developing this new framework or policy (yes, that means talking to actual, real, live hackers or sex workers!)
  2. What did these experts say?  (Seek out broad community opinion, as opposed to cherry-picked, press-ready statements by individual lapdogs.  What are their Twitter or Facebook groups saying and posting and re-tweeting?  What does an account like @EFF or @DEFCON or @mattblaze… or @SWOPUSA or @belledejour_uk or @whoresofyore have to say about it?)
  3. What specific, measurable result is such a proposal allegedly trying to achieve?  If it can be proven that this result will not be attained or if is later demonstrated that new laws or policies are not achieving the goal, will the proponents rescind their support?  If not, why not?


Respectability politics is what undermines the safety and indeed even the legitimacy of marginalized groups.  Mitch McConnell may be comfortable wearing little nerd glasses and likes to portray himself as a policy wonk, but he would never speak in the Senate quoting facts from “known hackers.”  Kamala Harris wants to be seen as a voice for women in leadership, but she would never deign to sully her pearl necklace and pants suit by appearing in a photograph next to a “known sex worker” offering up testimony about harm reduction.

And every one of us who plays into the mainstream narrative when the topic turns to “underground” communities gives these people their power.  Scoffing at the new hire at your firm who “dresses like a goth” even though your network has never been safer or running more smoothly… or telling friends and relatives that you loved your recent trip to Amsterdam “but assuredly we didn’t hang out in the red light district” to keep up appearances at the dinner table… all of these and so many other little stabs are harmful in myriad ways.  And often they are some of the worst examples of punching down that you can do.


Instead of that, I invite you all to extend a hand to those whom you do not understand.  If you’re going to swing a punch, aim up and rattle those in the corridors of power who want your fear and your applause when they grandstand and moralize.  Most of all, offer plenty of social and political cover to your peers and your friends… if they tell you that they attended a “hacker con” over the weekend, don’t shush them in front of the boss or try to characterize it as an “information security conference” instead.  Ask how they found this event; ask what they learned.  If a relative tells you they are friends with a sex worker (or, hell, even if they discuss having hired a sex worker) do not look away awkwardly or change the subject… ask them about their new friend.  Ask how they met; ask what they’re like.  Beneath all the hyperbole and stereotyping, people are all people… genuine, human people.


“Well our company would never hire a hacker,” says a clueless tech executive… unaware that they likely already have.  Think of that ignorant statement the next time you hear someone say, “well, I would never sleep with a hooker.”  Heh, chances are — if they have a typical, healthy sex life — they already have at some point and just didn’t know it.

Of course if people want to parse words they will explain that what they really are trying to signal is that they’ve “never paid for sex” and therefore they are morally superior.  Spoiler alert: everybody pays for sex.  Sometimes folk simply choose to know exactly how much they’re paying, and opt to do so up front.

You think no employee your SOC has ever developed exploit code or utilized a rootkit when testing the security of your network to make you safer? Heh, whatever helps you sleep at night.

I am friends with many sex workers, just as I am friends with many hackers.  Many have broken laws.  Virtually none of them would ever wish harm upon others.  All of them want to simply live their lives.  Help them.  Help by listening, by sticking up for them, hell… by hiring them!

Most of all, the next time someone has a very unhealthy and wrong-headed notion of what is means to be a hacker or to be a sex worker, push back against that.  Ride the elevator a few extra floors, don’t change the dinner table subject to the NFL right away… politely but firmly, ask if the speaker actually personally knows any of these individuals about whom they have formed such opinions.

If they don’t, encourage them to change that.  And if you yourself don’t, let changing that be your first step.