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Who would know better about protecting a complex system from exploitation than a gifted hacker tasked with destroying it?
That is how the now decades-old cottage industry of white-hat hackers continues to thrive across sectors in tech development. For those unfamiliar, a “white hat” refers to an ethical security hacker, typically hired by companies or governments to identify security vulnerabilities in a system or software. These hackers operate under the owner’s consent to test out many attacks against programs or even entire infrastructures to uncover potential exploitations before someone more nefarious reaches it.
Despite its legal ambivalence, white hats are still commonly used as a high-intensity stress test, specifically in cybersecurity. More recently, “white hat” has become a marketing term used to launch products created by individuals with a past in more unscrupulous hacking circles —repurposing their skills to create a product or program of superior, “hacker-proof” quality.
But the concept of a white hat or products created by a benevolent troublemaker has fallen out of style in many mainstream fields of tech development. Now, any tech entrepreneur is a free agent to whichever tech trend happens to be in vogue, and “disruptors” is a hollow buzzword deployed by startup marketing teams.
Just look at how many projects and funds have pivoted back to AI now that the industry is reaching new heights of innovation and adoption. Trends drive funding and growth in any industry, but it becomes increasingly apparent when leading funds and investors radically change the projects they back, and every other accelerator follows suit to ride a wave. It creates an environment where worthy projects might miss out on valuable funding or attention because their industry isn’t in a trendy tech investment listicle.
With that in mind, do entrepreneurs and investors have the wrong mindset when exploring certain tech sectors?
Part of the charm of white hat security comes from adopting a new perspective on a seemingly taboo or illicit part of tech culture and communities. It’s a real-life example of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. But with so many tech entrepreneurs and VCs chasing trends, it’s harder for other parts of tech to escape being overlooked.
Some might argue the taboo parts of tech culture have nothing that might benefit mainstream adoption. This argument is understandable, considering how underground tech fixtures are either built to be exploitative or harnessed for unsavory purposes. Reframing fringe developments for other uses may look like an endorsement or put projects in a morally grey area.
That being said, tech entrepreneurs and investors historically don’t have a problem with being in the grey when it comes to backing projects or entire sectors. Case in point: Bitcoin and crypto, in general, were perceived as a tool for overtly criminal activity, such as buying drugs on the dark web.
The dark web is probably one of the murkiest parts of the internet, yet many everyday users don’t actually understand what it entails. The dark web allows private computer networks to communicate and transact completely anonymously by hosting internet content through highly-guarded overlay networks that can only be accessed through specific software or authorization. This kind of technology could be highly beneficial if it wasn’t infamously associated with terrorism, child exploitation and other forms of violence.
Polls repeatedly show Americans don’t like government and corporate surveillance. And even Westerners who aren’t as concerned about companies like Meta and Google tracking their internet activity understand the value censorship resistance offers activists and journalists seeking to share information under totalitarian regimes.
But most entrepreneurs wouldn’t even consider repurposing the dark web’s technological underpinnings due to its reputation. A white-hat mentality, for example, could be enormously beneficial in trying to keep the good in the dark web while finding ways to mitigate or even eliminate the bad.
tomi, an anonymous project that claims to be led by crypto-industry leaders, has taken this approach in building its own alternative internet network. The idea is to ensure the free flow of information without government or corporate surveillance and prevent violence and illicit activity via tomiDAO, its community-led governance model.
Even AI has already been utilized for disreputable purposes. AI-based facial recognition has landed companies in hot water for illegal usage, not to mention the controversy caused by deepfakes and data privacy being compromised by generative AI. Yet there are few convincing arguments to completely abandon AI for benevolent reasons because it’s being used for dubious purposes.
Innovation can often come from the most unlikely places, but adopting a trend-focused or narrow-minded approach to tech development will cause entire sectors to be discarded or pushed further to the sidelines. If we want to see more white hat-style development that creates the most interesting and generous tech products possible, it will require entrepreneurs and investors to shift their perspective. While not every seedy sector of tech has a hidden treasure trove of use cases waiting to be discovered, it would be worthwhile to look at the perimeter to at least examine how certain technologies can be used to benefit everyone.