Ourselves As Others See Us Through The Lens Of Traditional Media

When I presented myself at the SHACamp 2017 info desk bright and early on the first full day of the camp, I was surprised to find that I was to be assigned a volunteer along with my press badge. Because of the way our community is sometimes covered by the traditional media, it was necessary that any journalists touring the site have a helping hand to ensure that they respect the privacy of the attendees, gain permission from people likely to be in any photographs, and generally not be idiots about the whole Hacker thing. I pointed out that I was working for Hackaday and not The Sun, and that as an active hackspace member and former hackspace director I was very much a part of the community attending SHA 2017 who would simply be wasting the valuable time of any volunteer assigned to me. Fortunately for the next volunteer in line they agreed with my point of view, so one of the angels was spared a day of my breakneck walking pace and impenetrable British colloquialisms.

It’s interesting therefore a few weeks after the event, to investigate how it was portrayed through the eyes of people who aren’t coming as Hackaday is, from within the bubble. To take a look at that disconnect between what we know about our community and its events, and how the traditional media sometimes like to portray us. Are they imagining the set of a Hollywood “hacker” movie in which assorted geniuses penetrate the computer systems of various international institutions by the simple expedient of banging wildly at a keyboard for a few seconds, or will the reality of a bunch of like-minded technology enthusiasts gathering in a field for several days of tinkering and other fun activities be what makes their reports?

The coverage of the event has been handily summarised on the SHA2017 wiki, and comes from a mix of security and IT publications, traditional news outlets, and Dutch TV. Not being a Dutch speaker it’s difficult to review a TV report, and the IT publications are strictly factual in their reporting and not the group we’re interested in, so for the purposes of this article we’ll take a look at the traditional outlets. We are certain not to cover every word written about the event, but there should be enough present to at least catch a flavour.

There seem to have been three broad streams to the coverage, first pieces that give a balanced review of the event, then those that concentrate on a single aspect such as a particular talk, and finally those that disappear down the hacker movie rabbit hole. Those three are ranked in order of acceptability from the perspective of our community, for even a responsibly written piece about a particular item can be slanted to appear as though that was the theme of the entire event. Looking at some examples below, we’re linking where appropriate to a Google Translate rendition of those not in English.

What Was Written

It’s pleasing to see that  there were a decent number of positive and well-written pieces. Probably the most such came from [Marco Calamari], for Punto Informatico (Italy) written very much from a perspective of One Of Us. Meanwhile [Isabel Baneke] for Truow (Netherlands) gave a balanced coverage, and [Detlef Borchers] for Heise (Germany) talked about the history of the event and its keynote. Then [Hal Faber], again for Heise (Germany), wrote another positive piece, this time post-event.

On the single-issue coverage, [Ms. Smith], for CSO Online (USA) concentrated only on the [Bill Binney] talk about NSA surveilance, while [Chris Baraniuk] for BBC News (UK) wrote a slightly alarmist piece on [Willem Westerhof]’s description of attacks on solar inverter infrastructure. [Arjen ten Cate], for de Stentor (Netherlands) was one of several that reported work on cracking a Dutch fire truck’s wireless network, and responsibly made it clear that the fire truck was there at the behest of the fire service following an incident in Rotterdam in which a similar truck had been compromised in the wild. Then [Detlef Borchers] again for Heise (Germany), wrote a responsibly written piece on several of the “Hacker” themed talks, without going into the others that were anything but.

The wooden spoon for worst reporting would have to go to Omroep Flevoland, the Dutch regional TV channel for that province. Their event preview specifically portrayed the attendees as computer criminals unless we’re reading the translation wrongly, and their follow-up piece went on to portray the camp’s purpose as nefarious. Talking to SHA staff members shortly after their visit, it seemed they had been looking for stereotypical “Hacker” scenes to film, and had come away having photographed the site’s telecoms infrastructure hub with its backup manual telephone exchange. Edgy, so edgy.

The Verdict

So on balance, the coverage was better than one might expect. We’re (mostly) not portrayed as computer criminals, even if we aren’t the happy-go-lucky geeks partying in the sun that we might see ourselves as. For readers of most of this coverage we likely appear closer to the hacker bashing wildly away at a keyboard to magically enter the AIVD‘s most sensitive digital echelons than the hacker magically creating awesome things with a 3D printer and a soldering iron.

It is most concerning that the worst coverage comes from the local broadcaster. Personally I found rural Flevoland to be a friendly place, the local people I met were very tolerant of a random Brit on her travels. I hope we didn’t cause them any disruption and that we all cleared up our villages to the extent that the SHA team could hand the site back in good order, so it would be nice to think that we would be welcome there again. It’s difficult to estimate how many Euros the European hacker community spent locally in their time on the polders, but it can’t have been insignificant.

To see the local media doing their best to fix us in the minds of the locals as nothing more than a bunch of ne’er-do-wells is particularly disappointing. They should know better, their viewers deserve it. It is a sign that there is much work to be done fixing in people’s mind the benefit of the benevolent hacking ideal for individuals and communities.

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