The RSA Hack on Wired

“In 2011, Chinese spies stole the crown jewels of cybersecurity—stripping protections from firms and government agencies worldwide. Here’s how it happened….

The RSA breach, when it became public days later, would redefine the cybersecurity landscape. The company’s nightmare was a wake-up call not only for the information security industry—the worst-ever hack of a cybersecurity firm to date—but also a warning to the rest of the world. Timo Hirvonen, a researcher at security firm F-Secure, which published an outside analysis of the breach, saw it as a disturbing demonstration of the growing threat posed by a new class of state-sponsored hackers. ‘If a security company like RSA cannot protect itself,’ Hirvonen remembers thinking at the time, ‘how can the rest of the world?'”

-Andy Greenberg, “The Full Story of the Stunning RSA Hack Can Finally Be Told.” Wired. May 20, 2021.

Open Question: If a security company like RSA cannot protect itself from state sponsored hackers, who can? Also seems relevant given the recent SolarWinds hacks.

How to Become a Hacker

“Learning something new that’s complicated often feels difficult at first – if it feels easy it may be something you already know or you may not really be testing your knowledge (it’s a lot easier to read about how to solve a physics problem and think ‘this makes sense’ than it is to solve a problem yourself with the tools you just read about). The struggle can be a good sign – it means you’re really learning and by focusing on doing similar types of things it’ll become easier as you get better…

…Learning something complicated for the first time should feel a little painful – you should get used to that feeling since it’s a good thing and means you’re growing. Don’t let it scare you away because you don’t think you’re smart enough. Since there’s so much to learn and a lot of different avenues to go down (just in computers there are things like computer graphics, security, machine learning, algorithms, mobile, web, infrastructure, etc.), having a mindset where you allow yourself to grow and get out of your comfort zone to learn new things is critical.”

Zach Alberico, “How to Become a Hacker.” zalberico.com. April 19, 2020.

The modern reality is that there are two computing revolutions going on. In one, computers are being made accessible to everyone, where everyone from small children to the elderly can navigate app icons and do useful things with a program designed by someone else. In the other, you are given a sophisticated tool and have to learn to use it to accomplish useful things you design yourself.

Everyone involved in the second revolution is a “hacker” in some sense of the word. They might not be writing code, but perhaps they are using git for version control, Photoshop to manipulate images, machine learning to look for patterns in data sets, designing objects to be printed in a 3D printer using Autocad, et cetera. There are many facets of this kind of computing that require no coding at all. However, you are using a generalized tool to accomplish a task, one that was previously impossible to perform.

So, we might need a newer, more expansive term for the people involved in this second revolution. One that include the plain text social scientist, computer artists, 3D designers and others.

It is the Worry That Made the Work Good

“To write good software you must simultaneously keep two opposing ideas in your head. You need the young hacker’s naive faith in his abilities, and at the same time the veteran’s skepticism. You have to be able to think how hard can it be? with one half of your brain while thinking it will never work with the other.

The trick is to realize that there’s no real contradiction here. You want to be optimistic and skeptical about two different things. You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but skeptical about the value of whatever solution you’ve got so far.

People who do good work often think that whatever they’re working on is no good. Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good.”

—Paul Graham. “Being Popular.” paulgraham.com. May 2001.

Optimism that a solution to whatever problem you are tackling can be solved, and skepticism in whatever solution you’ve managed to find or create, thus far, is perhaps one of the great lessons of how to approach life.