Best Frenemies Forever: Why the U.S. Government Courts Hackers

Even as officials criticize Snowden, they’re encouraging programmers with similar skill sets

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Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / The Guardian / Reuters

Edward Snowden is seen in this still image taken from video during an interview by The Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong, on June 6, 2013.

In the days following Edward Snowden’s explosive leaks about PRISM and FISA, National Security Director James Clapper called them “gut-wrenching,” lawmakers condemned them as “reprehensible,” John Boehner dubbed Snowden a “traitor,” and President Obama refused to comment, leaving the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation and a possible request for extradition. The message was clear: freeing digital information can be dangerous, and it should be limited.

And yet, the weekend before Snowden-gate, the White House did just that, allowing more than 11,000 programmers to access scores of raw data from closed systems. The goal of the “hackathon”—the second this year—was to encourage them to build innovative apps on top of its petitions platform, much as mobile developers code games for iOS and Android. And they did, creating a search widget, a data visualizer, and much, much more.

(MORE: Cover Story: The Geeks Who Leak)

Such are the benefits of open source, the catch-all term for the movement to make information free, in order to foster innovation and, more broadly, democracy. As White House Hackathon participant Waldo Jaquith puts it, “Preemptively putting government data on the Internet is the new [Freedom of Information Act].” “The world has changed,” adds Todd Khozein, one of the founders of Random Hacks of Kindness, a collective that helped organize the Hackathon. “And figuring out a new dynamic between a government and its people is not always going to be a smooth transition.”

But as much as it might benefit, innovation-wise, from being as transparent as a tech startup, the U.S. government has bigger concerns. The global threat of cybercrime looms large (see: China’s infiltration of U.S. weapons systems earlier this year), and releasing too much information could jeopardize national security.

“There’s been an attempt made to re-sanitize and reclaim the term [hacking] as a good thing,” says Marcus Ranum, a computer security researcher who built the first firewall for the White House. “Just because you’re stealing from someone you hate doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is not stealing.”

(MORE: Edward Snowden, NSA Whistle-Blower, Wins Unusual Sympathizers in Latin America)

Still, courting talented programmers is essential to the future of government. That’s why, in March, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) head Janet Napolitano also set out to recruit an army of high school- and college-aged “cyber warriors”—most of whom would otherwise be drawn to the private sector—to help the National Security Agency. It’s also why both the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security routinely sponsor “capture the flag”-style hacking competitions, encouraging programmers to break into secure systems to test their reliability.

Although the government strongly opposed what Snowden did, it recognizes the power of young, free-information minded Americans. The public’s response to Snowden was telling, too: the very tool that Hackathon-ers helped the White House create now hosts a petition calling him a national hero, and demanding that he be pardoned. It has more than 83,000 signatures.

MORE: Snowden Treads Fine Line as He Vows to Fight Extradition From Hong Kong