Using generative AI to create an image of "hacking" brings up images of shady characters in hoodies with code streams from The Matrix running behind them. However, as Assistant Professor in computer science Yueqi Chen says, hacking can be ethical, and is necessary in order to protect people.
Q+A with Yueqi Chen
What do most people not understand about ethical hacking?
While people often grasp the concepts of “ethical” and “hacking” individually, they struggle to reconcile the two: How can hacking be considered ethical? Unlike physics, chemistry, or even other fields within computer science, cybersecurity comes into being due to the existence of adversaries. Without a deep understanding of attackers, it is hard to design protection schemes that really work. Much like a football game, if we don’t study the strategies employed by the opponents, mounting an effective defense becomes exceedingly difficult.
What do you enjoy about hacking?
One thing I enjoy is the sense of accomplishment and the fulfillment of curiosity. Hacking is essentially playing games. The exhilaration of a successful hack is comparable to the thrill of securing a “chicken dinner” victory* in PUBG.
Another is the camaraderie formed when hacking alongside teammates. You know they can be counted on and they know that you will be stand by, not just for hacking challenges but also for life and career obstacles. A “battlefield” camaraderie exists without really setting foot on a physical battlefield.
How did you get started with hacking?
I was a sophomore when I did some hacking for the first time. I spent the whole night delving into the binary bomb challenges from the lab assignments in Carnegie Mellon University’s textbook named “Computer Systems: A Programmer’s Perspective”. That night… left me with a profound sense of joy and accomplishment. This was my start but, after this, I shifted my focus to computer architecture for the next two years until 2017 when I started my Ph.D. study.
In the first year of my Ph.D. study, I participated in the NSA codebreaker challenge together with other students. Our team finally ranked 5th nationwide. This accomplishment led me to earnestly consider hacking as my research focus, as it not only brings me happiness but also fulfills my curiosity about the unknown.
How would you recommend people learn how to hack?
The principle is to “get your hands dirty”. Some valuable resources include CTF Time , PWN College (a learning platform built by my collaborators in Arizona State), and writeups by other ethical hackers.
By reproducing these writeups, one can quickly acquire the hands-on skills essential for hacking. Best of all, these resources are free.
*Editor's Note: A “chicken dinner” victory in the video game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) means being the last person standing in a large-scale player vs. player battle with up to 100 other players.