An Open (Of Course) Letter to My Friend, the NSA

Sorry, But It’s Really Tough Nowadays To Hire a Non-Leaking Hacker

Dear NSA,

We need to have a chat, so I trust you’re reading this.

Of course you are; good. Now, let’s see … how should I put this? Look, you’ve done a great job cultivating that whole “spook” image for the past 60 years. Really, you’ve just been terrifyingly adept at creating an environment of ironclad secrecy, even more so than the CIA, who’ve bungled too many overseas jobs to be the omnipotent, untouchable agency they’d like us to think they are.

Times are changing, though. For the past several generations, you’ve been the rulers of all information, with no one to challenge you. Americans just had to trust that the good quiet folk at the NSA were looking out for them, because no one else could handle data on such a large scale. It was a simpler time, back when the Internet was young and the Web was just a seed of an idea, and our idea of “big data” was the Yellow Pages.

There are new kids in town, though; kids who grew up on data. They were raised to dish out and take in as much data as possible, and they do it for fun. To you, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and all the rest of it are the latest places from which to siphon information. To these new kids, it’s home. It’s where they grew up, which is why they’re much better at it, and why you hire so many of them.

Now, what happens when you raise a generation on a steady diet of data, and then try to keep naughty secrets? They’re going to ask questions. They grew up in a world where information was free, and they took advantage of that fact. They learned more about the world around them than could ever be learned in school, and they went online for the answers to the questions their parents and teachers wouldn’t answer. They grew up not just appreciating that information was free, but expecting information to be free.

It gets worse. Not only are you hiring millennials, for whom secrecy is anathema—you’re hiring millennial hackers. And hacking, as you well know, means finding ways of turning technology to serve a purpose other than its intended one. When information isn’t free, these people have the ability and the will to free it.

I know this because I’m one of them. I may not have top-secret clearance and make six figures working for one of your contractors, but Edward Snowden’s demographic profile still hits close to home. When I was a boy, I used to hack into my computer games to add fart sounds to them. I built my own computers. I made my sister’s Teddy Ruxpin say horrible, horrible things. When I get a new phone, its hackability is its number-one buying point.

When I get my hands on a new piece of technology, my first thought isn’t about what it can do—it’s about what it can’t do, and how can I force it to overcome its limitations to do what I want. I then wonder, “Why wasn’t I ‘allowed’ to do this in the first place?” See, we millennial hackers simply cannot take anything at face value. We’re a bit contrarian and stubborn by nature. It’s why we’re good at what we do. The more constraints you place on us (be they workplace, physical, technological, or copyright) the more we feel a need to disregard, challenge, or overcome those constraints.

To be a hacker is to be cynical about whatever “solid” information or limits you’re faced with, to remove layers of consumer sheen or government spin until raw components are laid bare to reconstruct at will. You reward people like me with fat salaries when we do this with technology, so there’s little sense in expecting us not do the same in the rest of our lives—with your policies, rules, information, even with our own personal lives. We tinker, probe, deconstruct, and reassemble for other purposes. One thing we don’t do is blindly put hand to heart and sing “God Bless, America” —unless we’re in a North Korean gulag and it’s a contrarian move.

Do you see the problem? You need my kind of people for our understanding of data, but we don’t necessarily want or need you. You are anathema to our values and expectations. Sure, you’ve got some very smart graybeards who can do some amazing things, but they’re not going to be the bulk of your army for long, if they even still are. You have no choice but to keep hiring these hackers who didn’t grow up having data hidden from them. It’s ironic that you’ve become so reliant on people who really have no business in a tight-lipped, hierarchical quasi-militarized institution. We are the ones you should be snooping on, if only you could snoop without us.

I feel your pain.

Edward Snowden smoked you, and it wasn’t even very hard for him. Now, I know what you’re going to say. “It won’t happen again! We’ll improve security!” Who is going to improve your security? Is it going to be the naval officers you used to hire, respectful of hierarchy and used to a military lifestyle? Or maybe, say, more young, technical lay-people—contractors with the information freedom ideals of the millennial hacker? Yeah, I thought so.

Let’s face it: This isn’t going to be the last time your secrets are aired to the public. It’s probably not even going to be the last time this year that your secrets are aired to the public by another Edward Snowden, because you’ve got countless Edward Snowdens on your payroll whose first—not last—instinct is to blow open your information infrastructure. I mean, you tried to recruit me years ago, for goodness sake. Those confidential recruitment materials that said “For Your Eyes Only” all over them? Yeah, I showed those to everyone I knew, mostly because you were so heavy-handed with all the confidential stuff.

The important thing now is not to panic. No tears. You’re a big, strong, spooky organization, right? You don’t have to clean out your desk. You’ve still got a big role to play in the cyber-warfare of the next several decades. You’re just learning a hard lesson here, and I realize you’re partly being demonized for implementing what the White House and Congress want. However, you have no choice but to keep hiring these young, entitled, informed, data-driven hackers, who pretty soon might not have any secrets to leak because the Snowdens in your midst will have forced you to turn into a fully transparent (but still efficient!) organization.

Now that I think of it, you really should have played up the six-figure salary and Hawaii angle in those recruiting materials you gave me. I would’ve kept your secrets. Really.


  • Jeremy Hughes

    The crusty old yolks don’t yet realize that the new gen does not share their vapid shallow outlook on life, nor do we want to.
    This whole thing will just backfire in their faces, and I’m gonna LOL all the way to our new democracy.

    • Loki

      That’s about the size of it. It’s the flipside of the globalisation coin, old world ideas of sacrosanct nation states are falling by the wayside as each generation comes of age. Our youth are a truly global, interconnected culture for whom data is like oxygen and exposing secrets is fair game.

      The animé series Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex touched on this, calling it “Cyberbrain Closed Shell Syndrome”, i.e. a state of mind which exists in the youth whereby data is there to be accessed and shared, no matter the means of access.

      • Hugh Barnard

        I’m sorry that’s also pretty ridiculous. It should read ‘our youth are like mindless consumers, ear-buds constantly inserted, playing Angry Birds or checking their facebook pages on their high-end phones’. I don’t believe that BTW, but there’s an element of truth in it. What’s being shared, LOL cats?

        • Loki

          For every 10 kids mindlessly consuming content there’ll be one installing custom operating systems on his phone, traversing the restricted areas of the school network, overriding the blocks his parents’ have put on the internet, finding security flaws in public websites, bluesnarfing his mates phones etc etc.

          The hackers of tomorrow will be leagues ahead of the guys employed by the security services in cyber warfare, kids are growing up in an era of (near)ubiquitous computing. Programming languages will be learnt early and will be like their mother tongue.

          Until we start to identify these kids early and guide them towards a white hat path, we’ll be left behind by the likes of China in the cyber security stakes.

          I’d bet that the first major infrastructure hack will be carried out by some teen seeing how far he can go down the rabbit hole rather than a genuine cyber terrorist looking to cause intentional damage to our infrastructure.

    • Hugh Barnard

      That’s a useless stereotype. I’m 62 and have been involved with computing since about 1966 still am. To me, many [but not all] of the so-called millenials with their iPads, iPhones and iPods are merely iDiots who are consumers who know a little bit about code and [above all] and too much about hipness

      • Jeremy Hughes

        No disrespect, consider my crusty comment as a narrative for their understanding of how tech works, not the age bracket in general, just these individuals stamping our rights.

      • Loki

        i-Products aren’t about being hip, they’re MFI computing.

        (made for idiots)

  • MrKamikaze

    Take away from the article:

    Millenials can’t be trusted so don’t hire them.


  • TrainerBra

    “Here come the morning that I say goodbye to ya
    Here come the morning that’ll say goodbye
    but I dont turn around cause the reason is treason….” (Kasabian)

    For millenial hackers, however, treason simply carries no weight; it has no reason.

  • kinkfisher

    So… if “hackers” truly believe information is free, why are they in an uproar if the NSA is simply taking everybody’s information? It’s “free” after all, right? Maybe you meant, “I’ll take the information *I* find useful because it should be free, but you cannot take *my* information because then you’re just invading my privacy.”

    • Erik Kilpatrick

      The 4th amendment protects our privacy,and was enacted to prevent the Government from violating our privacy…the Constitution does not protect the privacy of our Government..The 4th amendment supersedes any Government program,it supersedes the lives that are put in danger by the hackers exposure of this Unconstitutional program..Generations of people have already given their lives to protect our privacy…furthermore,Hackers do not point guns and arrest people based on “perceived” threats.