“I’m not worried about the people who’re collecting our data right now, like the NSA,” Sam says. “I’m worried about what happens when people breach them—another nation-state, a company looking to use data for nefarious purposes.” Still, he stresses, “I don’t put stuff on my computer that’s incriminating, and I don’t do illegal things online.”
“I don’t even trust myself with my own data,” Alec says. “Even if I harden my home router, close all the ports, make sure it’s not running some shitty version of BusyBox, I’m still really vulnerable.”
“I don’t take nude pictures,” Matt says. “I don’t say anything I don’t want people to hear online. I also just don’t say that kind of stuff in general.”
But what’s life without dirt? Now I’m concerned about a chilling effect: that, to conform to the panopticon, they won’t do or say or even think anything that would warrant privacy at all, just shrink their lives down within the limits of restrictive public acceptability and unjust laws. Some day, they might even be called upon to participate in some form of surveillance. Would they resist, I ask, if their employers told them to write some snooping software? And if official whistle-blowing channels failed them, would they simply refuse to do it?
“We’ve had this discussion,” Sam says. “And if I worked for a company that was implementing some kind of surveillance and I didn’t agree with it, I wouldn’t write that feature. The CS people are the last line of defense for that.”
“We have the power to fight against the encroachment on people’s right to privacy,” Alec says. Later, he paraphrases the YouTube star CGP Grey: “The king cannot do anything without his servants.”
If the people in charge are evil or stupid, it seems that no amount of renewable energy, self-driving cars, or surveillance-baffling tech can protect or save us. But perhaps ethical technologists like the Sthacks crew will form a final check. Without the help of people like them, no body or mind can be surveilled. And the more that social issues demand technical expertise to even comprehend—net neutrality, encryption, TOSs and EULAs, bioinformatics, privacy law—the more society will need ethical techies to give us the sort of guidance my parents always ask me for. (“Son, why isn’t my capitalism working?” “Have you tried restarting it? Maybe it’s obsolete.”)
“They’re certainly not easy, quick fixes; they’re uphill battles that will have to be fought on the day-to-day scale, by passionate people,” Sam and Alec wrote to me, after I’d left, regarding problems like climate change and mass surveillance. “The real progress comes from putting ourselves in positions where we have the resources to do work against these. As young people we’re sure we’re romanticizing this a little, but we hope that when we have jobs in a couple years our feelings haven’t changed and that we will be able to drive change toward a safer, more private internet.”
The Sthackers aren’t ambassadors of their generation; they’re just seven freshmen on one floor of one dorm of one college in one state in one country on our one and only planet. For all their exceptional talent, there must be tens of thousands more, and they will be running the show. It seems likely this generation of makers and breakers will, quite figuratively, make or break us. I would ask them, or beg them, really, to take it apart, then put it back together.
This article appears in the May issue. Subscribe now.