A Librarian at the H.O.P.E (Hackers on the Planet Earth) Conference

So, this weekend I attended my first hacker conference, “The Last H.O.P.E (Hackers on the Planet Earth)” sponsored by 2600 Magazine. Featured con speakers were: Steven Levy, Kevin Mitnick, Jello Biafra, Steve Rambam and Adam Savage of MythBusters fame. Some of the sessions I did attend included: “Evil Interfaces: Violating the User”, “A Hacker's View of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)”, “Hacking Democracy: An In Depth Analysis of the ES&S Voting Systems”, “One Last Time: The Hack/Phreak History Primer”, Wikipedia: You Will Never Find a More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy”, “YouTomb - A Free Culture Hack” and all the featured speakers (except I very sadly missed Steven Levy, I loved that iPod book!).

So what’s a librarian to make of all this? Well believe it or not, there is some common ground between the hacker community and us information science professionals. Chief among these are copyright (especially now with all the digitization occurring in libraries), The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), censorship, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) and the ever popular Wikipedia. There are more parallels between library science and hackers than you would ever think possible. We have similar concerns such as: accessibility of information, the sharing of information, collaboration and community outreach.

Hackers get a bad rap. I always had a soft-spot for them, even the nasty ones, as they show great ability to think outside the box and open up previously closed discussions on security and our rights. At the con there were no phones stolen, no re-wiring of the hotel elevators, no malicious hacking, or anything of the like. At the end of the 3-day con I was not surprised to hear this, from the session I had attended and the people I met, I learned a lot about hackers and their community. Hacking from a positive prospective brings attention to topics that definitely need more discussion, RFIDs and electronic voting for instance. Their act of exposing security flaws becomes shared knowledge within the community. They bring to light the shortcomings of processes and systems we depend upon, making way for improvements. Today, many hackers have jobs where they keep our precious data safe by testing systems, exposing vulnerabilities, looking for back-doors and ways to compromise the system, resulting in systems that keep our data safe.

So what can the hacker world bring to the library community? One thing that came clear to me during my attendance at the con was that hackers love to share their knowledge of technology with others. Hackers create community spaces fittingly called “Hacker-spaces” and lots of cities across the world have them, you just may not know it. Visit Hackerspaces.org to find one near you. Many of the attendees to the session I attended on “hacker-spaces” brought up questions such as “I run a hacker-space, how can I get more involved with the community?”. “How can we sell ourselves to schools and institutions as safe places for kids to learn about technology?”. Technology presented the wrong way can be boring, for instance “…so now open your Excel spreadsheet” to quote from one of the speakers. However, if you present it properly it can be much more interesting. If libraries or schools are looking to spice up their community learning programs, they could do no better than to get into contact with some of the folks running “hacker-spaces” in their communities and set up an exciting series of technology talks.

There are some very cool projects that speakers at the conference are working on that are great resources for librarians. Take for example Virgil GriffithsWikiscanner”. In non-technical short, this tool lists anonymous Wikipedia entries and shows you who’s editing them, what corporations are involved and their page edit histories. Check out some of the great stuff this tool has uncovered and read Virgil’s FAQ. In his talk Virgil also discussed other interesting Wikipedia centric projects such as: Coloring text by Trustworthiness by the UCSC wikilab. In which “The reputation of authors is computed from content evolution: authors who provide lasting contributions gain reputation, while authors whose contributions are reverted in short order lose reputation. Thus, the reputation system provides an incentive towards constructive behavior.” The other fun project is “YouTomb” co-developed by brainaics from Harvard and MIT as part of the MIT Free Culture student organization. In short it “tracks videos taken down from YouTube for alleged copyright violation” creating patterns of information that can be used to gauge current copyright practices and trends.

What can librarians do for hackers? We have lots of knowledge that we could share including, our research abilities, our knowledge of government and corporate organizational processes and our ability to organize information. Lots of projects involved the gathering and recording of data and/or data-mining. Who knows metadata standards and controlled vocabularies better than librarians?

So if you’re a forward thinking librarian or digital archivist out there, support the hacker community and spread the word about its projects. The library and information science community needs to know about great tools like the "Wikiscanner" and "YouTomb" and many others on the horizon and one of the best ways of doing that is to become more involved in the hacker community. I’m not encouraging random “friending” of hackers, but rather encouraging information science professionals to start paying attention to the hacker community especially its projects and conferences. Hackers and their curiosity of all things mechanical, social, technological brings important issues into the public venue and we as librarians are often on the same fightin’ side. They know where the lines are drawn, because they take chances walking really, really close and some times even stepping over them. I take their approach that you can learn much more by breaking something open than you can by just sitting there and watching it work. This thinking “outside the box”, initiates creativity, change and results in a better, safer, more informative world for us all.

To read a more journalistic review of the H.O.P.E conference, here's a recent Cnet article "HOPE Conference Highlights Everyday Hacking".

Cnet and Elinor Mills, was nice enough to take my picture watching the coffin go at the conference.

Reprinted from: http://lealaabbott.com
Leala Abbott is a digital archivist, specializing in digital repositories, DAM systems, Information Management and Collaborative Software (Web2.0).



Aren't hackers people who break into systems, steal stuff, vandalize or destroy? How can people at a conference walking around with lanyards and swag bags be hackers? Isn't that like tell people you're a spy?

that's only one side of the community....and if you actually read the article you would see that.

I read the article. What specifically did I miss?

If hacker means anyone who likes computers then isn't it rather meaningLESS?

"Their act of exposing security flaws becomes shared knowledge within the community. They bring to light the shortcomings of processes and systems we depend upon, making way for improvements. Today, many hackers have jobs where they keep our precious data safe by testing systems, exposing vulnerabilities, looking for back-doors and ways to compromise the system, resulting in systems that keep our data safe."

As an information professional, I feel that this article shows the positive side of hacking. It is only through exposing weaknesses that we can truly address the problems. Here's one example. Look at Microsoft. Their OS's get hacked all the time and the techies learn from these break-ins and work on fixing the flaws. Apple, on the other hand, rarely gets hacked and, contrary to what most Apple users would like to believe, there are large problems with the computers that never get addressed since no one brings attention to them.

Chuck, I say to you, open your mind and learn a little about the issues facing information professionals today that are relevant to other computer users-especially in the library and archives world. These are issues such as the need for open-platform applications, the usage and validity of user-driven websites, and the ways in which information is accessed. Thus, this article is quite timely in its subject and perspective.

The white hat guys like Mitnick and whatnot who farm themselves out to find security weaknesses. I get it. I read Art of Intrusion.

Still the basic skill involves electronic burglary, sanctioned or not.

It just doesn't seem like a very "conference-y" thing to me.

For the record I'm a computer science professor as well as a librarian. My mind is so open most of my brains have slid out

I think you're missing the point (I blame the media). Where computer security is a large part of hackerdom, it's not the only thing in that community.

The wonderful folks who worked out the infrastructure and protocols for the internet are all hackers. People like Woz who designed and built a revolutionary computer in his garage is a hacker. The folks at Xerox PARC who designed a good number of the tools we use today (Mice, Ethernet, Graphical User Interfaces, Laser Printers, to name a few) all hackers.

Granted the con had a number of talks about network security. There were also talks on encryption, the effect of computers on society. Laws like the DMCA which impact how society uses computers. The effect of things like RFids in passports and licenses. And, of course, the security of voting machines was discussed. I'd suggest looking at the list of panels (at http://hope.net/) before you decide if it's conferenc-y or not. To be honest, as a comp sci professor, I'd suspect you'd want your students to come if only to meet Steven Levy and learn the history of their field.

Somehow the term hacker has morphed over the past 20 years (mostly due to the way the media uses it). The term has gone from computer / network security wizard to computer / network security criminal. The term, as Leala uses it is in line with the primary definition out of the jargon file,

"A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users' Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular." (reference http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/H/hacker.html).

As you can see this is not someone who "likes computers" nor is it someone who is a criminal, it's a person enjoys doing ingenious things with computers and technology. Like the term Jedi or Wizard the Hacker can be used to describe people who are ethical or unethical.

For a more in depth understanding see Steve Levy's book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackers:_Heroes_of_the_Computer_Revolution).

Many of Levy's books are interesting from a computer security/hacker (in either sense of the term) perspective. "Hackers" is a great boo, but Artificial Life and Crypto are also well worth reading. ^_^

This a great article. I have heard little talk of opening communication between librarians and hackers, so it's very interesting to hear someone address how our plights are similar, and the benefits of working together. It's a fresh take on role of the librarian, and on the digital community we now inhabit with hackers, programmers and designers. Paying attention to other professionals in the digital field is essential if we want to break ground on new ventures. As librarians we must remember to move forward, and understanding the abilities and objectives of our peers can only help us to progress.

Since we all come to the digital world with different skill sets, and with unique knowledge, it is vital for the success of our endeavors, that we communicate with other branches of the digital community. Open communication and knowledge sharing can help to create a more complete understanding of the technology we work with, allowing us to push our ideas further and to expand upon what we have already established.

The proposed relationship between the librarian and the hacker is a novel one because both of these groups are driven by their curiosity, and with this invitation to be curious of each other, we explore new frontiers with confidence and more complete knowledge.

Thanks to Leala Abbott for bringing this topic to our attention, and for offering her bright insight on the future of the planet earth: when librarians and hackers unite!