Encore: ‘Breaking and Entering’ with Jeremy Smith
This week, we’re revisiting Sarah Aronson’s 2019 conversation with Jeremy Smith about his book, ‘Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called Alien.’ Smith’s taut, true thriller dives into a dark world that touches us all, as seen through the brilliant, breakneck career of an extraordinary hacker—a woman known only as “Alien.”’
When she arrived at MIT in the 1990s, Alien was quickly drawn to the school’s tradition of high risk physical trespassing: the original “hacking.” Within a year, one of her hallmates was dead and two others were arraigned. Alien’s adventures were only just beginning.
Sarah Aronson: What’s a white hat hacker?
Jeremy Smith: A white hat hacker is a hacker for good. That can mean a variety of things, but in this case, the kind of things a white hat hacker does in Breaking and Entering—she’s a hacker that institutions and individuals hire to try to break into them to see how they can be broken into. She’s trying to break into them before the bad guys do so they can patch their holes.
Aronson: Why write the biography of a female hacker called Alien?
Smith: We all are aware we’re being hacked. Our economy, our culture, our politics and we know these hacks are targeting us individually and the institutions we rely on. But we don’t have a face to a hacker. If you ask, “What does a hacker look like?” People either don’t know or they go back to the stereotypes that are 30-40 years old: Matthew Broderick in War Games or Angelina Jolie in Hackers. That face of the industry has grown up, professionalized, and changed. When I met a hacker at a playdate for my preschool daughter, I knew something had changed in hacking and I wanted to be able to share that story.
Aronson: The book begins with very physical hacking that then transforms into more computer-based, web-based hacking…
Smith: I was proud that the first 100 pages of a book about hackers doesn’t have a computer, except maybe one or two scenes. That’s because there is this history and tradition of hacking that’s over 100 years old, that predates computers, where it is exploring these physical spaces. Sometimes that has outward signs the public can see: when the hackers pull an elaborate, ingenious prank like getting a police car on top of the Great Dome at MIT, or turning the tallest building on campus into a playable Tetris game, or getting a living room lounge set complete with a billiards table and a cat in an easy chair upside down upside down on the arch outside the Media Lab. Much more often it’s just exploring for exploration’s sake and trying to find these hidden, unknown spaces that members of the public and even the designers of the space don’t even know about. In that culture, the ethos is: you leave your little mark—a graffiti-like symbol—called a sign-in, but you would never leave a sign-in where normal person of the public could see. It’s something only hackers could see. It’s not showing off, it’s passing on the word within your very insular community.
Aronson: Who is a hacker and what’s their motivation?
Smith: I talked to somebody at one of the hacker conferences at Las Vegas, which is one of the biggest in the world. He traced the progression of hacking in four words: fun, fame, profit, power. For most of hacking’s history, including computer hacker, it was for fun: it’s having these systems that you can explore and get inside of, not to hurt other people or make money, but to understand them better than even the designers themselves. Then there is an element of fame, showing off to other people, getting your credibility built up, but that’s still very much within that community.
What happens is we move more and more of our society and the systems we rely on, and our basic functions on a daily basis, onto computers, network computers, and the internet. In a weird way, you could say we’ve invaded hacker’s space, rather than hackers invading our space. They were always playing on computers and computer networks. We’ve pushed our society there and that meant hacking professionalized and it became something people could do for a living for the first time.
That birth of the information security industry is the path Alien takes in Breaking and Entering. We know that when government bodies do this, it’s a power grab. Our government might hack Iran, Israel might hack Saudi Arabia, Russia might hack all of us and so on and so forth. It can be very powerful if you control these systems on which people rely.
About the Book:
This taut, true thriller dives into a dark world that touches us all, as seen through the brilliant, breakneck career of an extraordinary hacker—a woman known only as Alien.
When she arrived at MIT in the 1990s, Alien was quickly drawn to the school’s tradition of high risk physical trespassing: the original “hacking.” Within a year, one of her hallmates was dead and two others were arraigned. Alien’s adventures were only just beginning. After a stint at the storied, secretive Los Alamos National Laboratory, Alien was recruited by a top cybersecurity firm where she deployed her cache of virtual weapons—and the trespassing and social engineering talents she had developed while “hacking” at MIT. The company tested its clients’ security by every means possible—not just coding, but donning disguises and sneaking past guards and secretaries into the C suite. Alien now runs a boutique hacking outfit that caters to some of the world’s biggest and most vulnerable institutions—banks, retailers, government agencies. Her work combines devilish charm, old school deception, and next generation spycraft. In Breaking and Entering, cybersecurity finally gets the rich, character driven, fast-paced treatment it deserves.
About the Author:
Jeremy N. Smith writes regularly for the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Discover, and he and his work have been featured by CNN, NPR News, and Wired, among other outlets. Born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, he is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Montana.
The Write Question is a production of Montana Public Radio.