The enduring myth of the hacker boy-band

1337 but not equal.

Illustration by D. Thomas Magee for Engadget

Last week, Wired magazine published a sprawling feature on a group of young hackers the magazine claimed would "make us or break us" with their "exceptional talent." The article fawningly profiled each member of a group of Northeastern University college students who would "soon dominate technology -- and shape our future."

The hackers on Wired's hot list got an impressive amount of editorial padding for their résumés, and each had a photo and stat card, naming their "tech hero," "last hack," what they'd do with a trillion dollars, and their "dream job." It was exposure on high, and a setup to a bright future for each hacker in what was quickly noticed to be a strangely homogenous group.

You see, every single one, down to a man, was ... a man.

Hack just as much, get 100% less press

This seemed odd to the infosec community. And the hackers and researchers, and actual makers and breakers, said so.

Hearing the outcry, the magazine's editor took to the pages of his personal Facebook account -- not the magazine itself -- to make an apology. Editor in Chief Nicholas Thompson admitted that "many readers have pointed out" that "none of the seven people is a woman. It's not the most racially diverse collective either."

If it had seemed to infosec that the magazine might've had to go out of its way to find such an un-diverse group of hackers ... turns out, it did. Thompson's social media post revealed that during the course of reporting the story, there was "a meeting with the woman who runs the college's official hacking group."

Now, we can all bag on Wired and be annoyed at the lack of female and black editors everywhere, or lament infosec's wider problems with attracting a diverse workforce. Because Wired definitely didn't learn anything after their boob-tastic cover disaster. And have you ever tried to pitch a piece on women or people of color in hacking? Even cybersecurity CEOs have been hitting infosec over the head about hiring a diverse workforce to keep them from being "weak."

But Wired hit the zeitgeist in a way it didn't plan to. The article explained that "ours is a culture fascinated, and terrified, by teenagers who know computers better than most of us will ever..." What it actually described is that ours is a culture fascinated with erasing women from the hacking narrative altogether.

It's the same thing that happened when the Washington Post profiled hacker collective L0pht in 2011. The article featured at length the men -- and the guys who hung around them -- who could've saved us from our current security doom if only people had listened. And indeed: Members from the Boston collective testified to Congress about the dangers we currently face.

You can probably tell where this is going. There was a glaring omission in WaPo's glowing piece: The women of L0pht.

You would never have known from reading about the amazing male hacker club that it was also where famous contemporary female hackers were hacking too. Ones like Katie Moussouris, chief policy officer of the HackerOne bug bounty clearinghouse and founder of Luta Security. And open-source pioneer, engineer Limor Fried, CEO of Adafruit (photo).

There are more -- if anyone decides to look. I have. "The women of L0pht" is a story I've pitched many times. It is odd arguing the relevance of this kind of story to (usually nontechnical) male editors. Clearly no one is questioning pitches for articles about "men who hack."

I'm starting to think we need a Bechdel Test for this sort of thing.

Even pronouns are more inclusive now

It's not even a new trend. Wired and WaPo are simply part of a tradition. The erasure of women in hacking has a historical precedent. In a stunning coincidence, the documentation comes from Northeastern's own Professor Meryl Alper.

Her academic paper "Can Our Kids Hack It With Computers? Constructing Youth Hackers in Family Computing Magazines (1983–1987)" analyzes where our modern hacker narrative came from. Spoiler: It's all about fetishizing brilliant young men. She points out, "We should further scrutinize though who is missing from these narratives: girls and youth of color."

For nearly 40 years, in popular media, boys are never described as being nontechnical before they acquire the skill of hacking. Nor do "stories about male hackers portray this transformation from novice to nerd." Alper notes that "when female hackers are made visible, discussion is primarily limited to either their social exclusion or their initial lack of 'natural' technical skills."

So it's just the way things are done. It's also, you know, lazy.

It's really too bad that Wired's editor didn't actually change anything with his Facebook apology. Like all good apologizers, he said he was sorry that it happened, and that it wasn't the right thing to do. And he gets props for not ignoring the hackers who called him out. But what a missed opportunity! He could've told us why it wasn't the right thing to do. And no, not because we have to show diversity now or we're a magazine of influence so we should pretend to be socially responsible.

It was wrong because their "here are the people who are the future of hacking" article was inaccurate. That's not what the future of hacking looks like and we all know it. It's not even the present of hacking. That was an old fantasy of hacking's future, following a template set in motion by magazines from the 1980s, whose editors were men born in the 1940s and '50s.

It's actually not what the future of hacking ever looked like.

Photograph by Rayon Richards for Distro Magazine – Issue 75 (Limor Fried)