This past July, the highest profile hacker conference in America - known as DEFCON - made a show of publicly disinviting all federal employees from attending. It was a shock, and a reversal: Last summer not only were the Feds in the audience, they were on the stage: National Security Agency chief General Keith Alexander was the keynote speaker; he had come, he said, to "solicit" support for cybersecurity. "You have the talent," he said, and called for more sharing between private companies and the government. (He also denied that the NSA keeps a file on every U.S. citizen.)
Only a few found outside of a paranoid fringe found Alexander's remarks terribly controversial at the time. That has now changed.
Gen. Alexander's appeal came from a deep understanding that the NSA cannot get very far without technologically savvy, innovative people designing secure systems, breaking encryption, and creating offensive cyberweapons. Some call them hackers: people who are obsessed with problem solving, and who love to take apart technology to see how it works and, if they're really good, how it can work better. The world of hackers - or coders, to use a softer term - can be difficult for outsiders to understand - an obsession with cryptography, Linux and homemade bespoke software, and a preference for cleverness over user-friendly design doesn't exactly endear them to mainstream America. There's another problem hackers have with the government - they tend to believe there is a right and a wrong way to do things, a mix of mindset and ideology, that doesn't fit well into Washington's or the Intelligence Community's very grey, sometimes dark, world.