Katie Moussouris on HOPE 2008: HOPE Springs Eternal

Guest Editorial by Katie Moussouris of MicrosoftIf cyberspace is a mass, consensual hallucination, as William Gibson characterized it, then HOPE was a dream manifested in meatspace that would not die. While Hackers On Planet Earth has been running every other year since 1994, it was my first journey to the con.

Guest Editorial by Katie Moussouris of Microsoft

Katie Moussouris
If cyberspace is a mass, consensual hallucination, as William Gibson characterized it, then HOPE was a dream manifested in meatspace that would not die. While Hackers On Planet Earth has been running every other year since 1994, it was my first journey to the con. It was, after all, my last chance, or so I thought (clever hackers).

The Last HOPE took place July 18-21 in Gotham City, amid the swelter and sweat and sticky heat of a New York summer. Talks at the con ranged wildly in topic from hacking, to art, to food, to politics – okay, they were all about hacking, but often with a strong social commentary or artistic bent, taking healthy swipes at mainstream media and culture. There was a pervasive theme throughout regarding moving the paradigm of the network from that of information dissemination and exchange to one of bringing about social action. Hacktivism was a popular topic, though not in the destructive website-defacement or DDoS sense, but rather in the sense that writing a piece of code that transforms the way humans interact can change the world. HOPE highlighted a digital, literal movement of Power to the People.

For more on Katie's perspective, continue below.

The way we as humans convey and deepen knowledge itself has changed due to this mass, consensual hallucination. The global consciousness and compendium of our collective body of knowledge as a species is no longer controlled by a small set of the powerful or the wealthy. Mainstream talk-at-you traditional media of the last centuries has waned in relevance, as media consolidation sucks the flavor out of everything that is presented to us on TV and radio. Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of 2600 magazine and a founder of HOPE, injects some genuine flavor back into our lives via his community radio show Off-the-Hook.

Some of the most interesting, juicy, pithy, profound information is now more than ever in our hands and heard through our voices. While blogging can be rife with inaccuracies and cannot be a total replacement for true journalism (wherever it still exists today), it is at least a fresh set of ideas and opinions that can often be presented without corporate filtration. As Jello Biafra instructed the HOPE audience to do in years past, we have become the media. And we have also become the media fact checkers.

The average citizen now has the tools that can be deemed the Great Equalizers of information dissemination. With a wave of his Wiki wand, Virgil Griffith created WikiScanner and WikiWatcher, a set of tools that first got noticed last year when he released the first version of the scanner. Consider it a WayBack Machine meshed with ARIN, it takes snapshots of the entire Wikipedia database and overlays IP address information to enable specific edits to be traced back to the IP block of origin. Couple that with knowing who owns the IPs, and you’ve got attributable edits – like soft drink producers editing their products’ Wiki pages to take out anything that discusses detrimental health effects, and mysterious entries about famous oil spills having “no lasting environmental impact” coming from an oil company’s IP addresses. My how the fur flew.

Since Wikipedia is often regarded by the mainstream population as an authoritative, self-policing virtual library at modern-day Alexandria, these utilities provided by Virgil are a service to us all. WikiScanner and tools like it can help keep the timbre and tone of our collective voices free from corporate pitch-modulation and political revisionist history. Once it’s on the Internet, it cannot be erased.

Another interesting talk came from Adam Savage from the Discovery Channel show, MythBusters. Adam gave a rousing talk about his do-it-yourself personal projects to satisfy his obsession with building cool things, like a reproduction of the Maltese Falcon and a full skeleton of a dodo. But the real message was to encourage the natural human curiosity driving us, to discover and test the principles of science, to learn the truth about the world around us – and to prove it in excruciating detail to each other.

This is the culture where we are all empowered and encouraged to build our own scale models, our own electronics, our own programs, our own websites, and our own cons to talk about it all. It reminds me of those heady days, when I at 15 years old went to my first 2600 meetings in Harvard Square, back when it was still at Au Bon Pain. When I wandered out of my room to meet with these like-minded people, I played with electronics I had only read about on The Works BBS. I met IRL, some members of the l0pht who would later testify before congress about how the internet could be taken down by a single packet in 30 minutes, and those who would also go on to form the company I joined as a Security Consultant some 12 years later to become One of the Artists Formerly Known as @stake. It was an amazing time in my formative years, and as I looked out over the crowd gathered at HOPE, dotted with some of the faces I’d known for over half my life, along with kids literally 12 years old, soldering their badges, I was filled with an alternating sense of nostalgia and, you bet: hope.

HOPE and other cons foster and encourage the modern age of Newton, of Pasteur, of Einstein, and of Che Guevara, all stuffed into a virtual sheep stomach to form the haggis of the information age. Some, like me who grew up on the stuff, find it a delicious harmony of savory tastes and textures, while others find the cacophony of the crowds frightening and are disgusted by the sights and smells of ingredients they feel are not fit for human consumption. Either way, HOPE and cons like it will always be there to bring the noise, and for that I am grateful. By the look of that kid with the soldering iron, so is he.

While not everyone will agree on everything that is out there, at least it’s there – free speech at its most pure manifestation to date. Once done (on the Internet), a deed can never be undone. We have the tools available to us to check up on “the facts”, and to reject anyone’s given reality and substitute our own. If we do the rejecting convincingly enough, we may even change everyone’s reality. We were told the revolution would be televised. It is – on YouTube (unless it is deemed to be too controversial or to contain copyrighted material, in which case a thumbnail archive of it can be found on YouTomb).

HOPE is dead. Long live HOPE.

Katie Moussouris is a Security Strategist in the MSRC Security Ecosystem Strategy Team, working in the group that is responsible for securing current and future Microsoft products. Katie began her nerdy life programming her C64 in grade school, writing her own Zork-like text-based adventure – which was of limited use, since she had no friends and she knew all the puzzles in her own game. Good thing she eventually left her room and found some like-minded people at a local 2600 meeting.

Katie’s professional background is application security, having come from Symantec by way of the @stake acquisition. Katie founded and ran the Symantec Vulnerability Research Program, the first program of its kind in Symantec's history to allow the publication through Responsible Disclosure of original vulnerability advisories discovered by Symantec researchers. In addition to performing security research, Ms. Moussouris has been an application penetration tester for fortune 500 companies across numerous industries. She has uncovered serious vulnerabilities during the course of her work before they could be widely exploited by hooligans and criminals for either fun or profit, respectively.