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Premier hacker conference Def Con, which just wrapped up its 21st year, played host to security professionals who all had very different opinions on what the NSA is up to. In fact, the only thing everyone could agree on is that the PRISM revelations came as no surprise.
Even if it isn't news to this crowd, it is still a significant development in the general climate of government surveillance and national security. And at Def Con, where government recruitment was hampered this year by conference founder Jeff Moss's requesting that feds stay away, it seemed like a good idea to walk around asking people if they would still want to work for the NSA.
I expected to get a lot of negative reactions, and I wasn't disappointed. Indeed, "hell no" was the most common response. "They don't want me," said Charley. (Many conference attendees declined to give me their full name.) "Yes, but only if I was in charge. Otherwise, fuck no," said Rob.
I figured Lucky, pictured above, would have had some interesting interactions over the course of his day given the nature of the sign he was carrying. "I would never [work for the NSA]," he told me. "I've gotten high fives from people who say they work for the government and they tell me they hate it.
Not everyone was so blunt in their response to my question, and rather imparted upon me the importance of understanding the nature of government agencies. (Though by and large, they still said "hell no.")
Mitch Stolz, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, eloquently summed up what others had also been saying. "Organizations are made up of people, and people can be good or bad," he said. "We can hope that those who do surveillance have a conscience that makes them think, 'maybe I won't make that request,' or 'maybe I won't query so broadly.'"
In the end, though, Stolz was firm in his position, saying "I don't think I could stomach working for the NSA or other national surveillance programs, especially as a lawyer, because their job is to make laws work how they aren't supposed to."
A lot of people avoided the question entirely, instead using it as a prompt for long discussions on the more general landscape of surveillance in the public and private sectors, and how little the general public understands what is actually happening. (I feel justified in assuming that all of these people work for the NSA.)
"Most people are faux outraged about the NSA revelations," said Jenny. "No one from the press understands what is really going on. There are three sides to every story—yours, mine, and the truth." After talking for a long time about her side, my side, the sides of everyone around us, and arguing about what the truth is, she sent me on my way with a quote from Benjamin Franklin that I think we can all appreciate: "Those who would give up liberty for safety deserve neither."
Despite the negative responses, there were many people who were not opposed to working for the NSA and its ilk, and indeed some who were outright excited about the possibility. The main motivations to join the government seemed to be the desire to fulfill a patriotic obligation to maintain the nation's security now and into the future, as well as the understanding that these are stable jobs that offer the chance to be at the forefront of the field they are passionate about with limitless resources at their disposal.
"Someone has to protect us, and sometimes you have to get your fingers dirty to do that."
"I have already applied for a job there," explained Jeb. "I like crypto-analysis, I love big data. Working there appeals to me because it is more intelligence driven. The data sets would be bigger, and more meaningful."
"Yeah, I would have no problem with that. I'm a retired army officer," one of the conference's longtime security staff, an older gentleman with an epic white beard and curly mustache who goes by the moniker Whiteb0rd, told me. "Someone has to protect us, and sometimes you have to get your fingers dirty to do that. I'm not happy with what they're doing domestically, but the pendulum swings forward and back, and it will correct itself over time."
George Walls, the dean of admissions for Capitol College—a feeder school for the NSA, DHS, and NASA—explained that these agencies offer valuable job prospects, and many kids in high school and their early college years who don't have such negative views of government agencies are eagerly working towards careers in them.
Even adults who might identify as subversive hackers and have experience having their freedom curtailed by government programs are aware that these agencies offer opportunities to get paid to do what they love. "I routinely have guys coming up here looking totally counterculture," said Walls. "Mohawks, dyed hair, piercings, you name it. And they whisper, 'I need to get my doctorate because I can't get a government grant without it.' I guess the prevailing attitude is one of, 'I can work for the feds, but I don't have to like it.'"
Reconciling one prevailing Def Con ethos—the value of information freedom and a free net—with the professional benefits of working for the feds is a question many attendees had struggled with in one way or another. But it was clear that some found it an easy question to answer than others.
That included Jason, who had a huge beer in his hand, two more shoved in his pockets, and clearly a few already working their way through him when I asked him for his opinion. "Fuck the NSA," he said, "but I'd love to work for them. I don't necessarily agree with what they're doing, but it is cool work—state security is important. It's hard to do the right thing all the time."
"At the end of the day, there is no freedom, anyway," he said. "I need to pay my mortgage, I need to feed my family. Guys living in the bushes might be better off, but is that even freedom? Who knows. Here, have a beer. I'm off."