Modern field guide to security and privacy

The best way to learn about computers: break them

Travis Goodspeed, an independent cybersecurity researcher, says tinkering leads to better cybersecurity.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Independent security researcher Travis Goodspeed speaking at the Security of Things Forum in Cambridge, Mass., on Thursday.

Often, the brightest security researchers, the same ones who strive to make the internet safer, start out as creative tinkerers who are simply curious about machines.

That's the lesson from Travis Goodspeed, a respected independent security expert and computer hardware hacker.

"Junk hacking, the hacking of things that don't matter, allows us to talk about the mechanism of what actually happened by stepping back from the morality of it. Is anyone actually offended if their children can hack their Tamagotchi toy?" Mr. Goodspeed said Thursday at the Security of Things Forum in Cambridge, cohosted by Passcode. 

Take the Texas Instruments TI-85 calculator, used by millions of students over the past two decades. Curious teens and students have long discovered ways of getting around the TI-85's simple interface to install games on their calculators.

There are also ways to customize TurningPoint clickers (used in college classrooms) and amateur radios, which anyone can digitally manipulate "with the same tricks that can be used to hack medical equipment," he said.

But few people will likely care if those seemingly benign products are hacked, Goodspeed said, "which makes it possible for us to talk about" how similar tricks could work on more important systems.

The biggest lesson, according to Goodspeed, is that anyone can learn about electronics and technology. If a computer isn't working, he said, "take it apart with a screwdriver. Figure out what it's supposed to be doing, and then figure out why it’s not."

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