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Ham radio vs. hacker communities

2017-12-26

I've spent my last 20 years learning about and playing with stuff that has electricity in them, and this led me into two communities: the one of hackers, and the one of ham/amateur radio enthusiasts. Although I managed to get closer to the latter only in the last 10 years, I found lots of similarities between these two groups – even though most people I know that belong to only one of these groups would be surprised at this thought.

The two communities started having a pretty big overlap in the last decades, especially with the widespread availability of Software Defined Radio (SDR), most notably RTLSDRs, an unintended feature of cheap DVB-T dongles with Realtek chipsets. This put radio experimentation within reach of hackers and resulted in unforeseen developments.

In a guest rant by Bill Meara, Hack-a-Day already posted a piece about the two communities being pretty close back in 2013, and there are a growing number of people like Travis Goodspeed who are pretty active and successful in both communities. Let's hope that this blog post will encourage more members of each community to see what the other scene can offer. In the sections below, I'll try to show how familiar “the other side” can be.

Subscenes

There are subsets in both groups defined by skill and/or specific interests within the scene, which map quite nice between these two groups.

  • On the one hand, those who master the craft and gain experience by making their own tools are held in respect: real hackers (can) write their own programs, and real ham radio enthusiasts build their own gear. Even though, in both scenes this was a big barrier to entry historically, which is getting easier as time goes by – but this is exactly why those who still experiment with new methods are usually respected within the community.

  • On the other hand, people whose sole method of operation is by using tools made by other people are despised as appliance operators in radio and script kiddies in hacker terms.

  • There are virtual environments that mock the real world technology, many hackers and ham radio operators have mixed feelings towards games like Uplink and apps like HamSphere respectively. Some say it helps to spread the word, some question their whole purpose.

  • Trolls can be found in both groups, which can hurt the most when newcomers meet this subset during their first encounter with the community. A close, somewhat overlapping group is those who deliberately cause disruptions for others: signal jamming is pretty similar to denial of service (DoS) attacks. Most members of both communities despise such acts, which is especially important since the relevant authorities are often helpless with such cases. Of course, this also leads to the eventual forming of lynch mobs for DoS kiddies and signal jammers alike.

  • Mysteries permeate both scenes, resulting in data collection and analysis. Ham radio enthusiasts monitor airwaves, while hackers run honeypots to gather information about what other actors, including governments, corporations, and people are up to. Campfire talk about such projects include subjects such as numbers stations and the Equation Group.

  • Although for different reasons, but in both fields, armed with knowledge and having the right equipment can help a lot in disaster scenarios, resulting in subscenes that deal with such situations, organizing and/or taking part in field days and exercises. Of course, both subscenes wouldn't be complete without the two extremes: people who believe such preparation is unnecessary, and people who falsely believe they're super important with imaginary (and sometimes self-made) uniforms, car decorations, reflective vests, etc.

  • Some people are fascinated by artificial limitations, treating them as challenges. In the hacker community, various forms of code golf aim at writing the shortest computer code that performs a specific task, while ham radio operators experiment with methods to convey a message between two stations while using a minimal amount of transmit power, such as WSPR or QRSS. Although not strictly part of the hacker community, demoscene also thrives on such challenges with demos running on old hardware and intros being limited to a specific amount of bytes (such as 32, 256, 4k, 64k).

  • While artificial limitations may seem competitive in themselves, some people get almost purely focused on competitions. Hackers have their wargames and capture the flag (CTF) events, while ham radio operators have various forms of contests, typically measuring the quantity and quality (such as distance, rareness) of contacts (QSOs). And in both cases, there are people who consider competitions the best thing in the hobby, there are those in the middle, considering it as a great way to improve your skills in a playful way, and of course, some question the whole purpose and feel that competitions like these are the reason why we can't have nice things™.

  • Both communities have people who prefer low-level tinkering. Some hackers like to jump deep into machine code and/or assembly, while some ham radio operators (especially in the QRP scene) prefer sending and receiving Morse code (CW) transmissions. Also, hackers and amateur radio enthusiasts alike have quite a few members (re)discovering, fixing and hacking old hardware, usually for no other obvious reason than “because I can”. In both groups, outsiders sometimes don't really understand, why anyone would do such things nowadays, while the real fans ask back “why not”.

Other similarities

  • Sharing knowledge is at the core of both communities, there are online and AFK meetups where anyone can show what they did, and newcomers can join the scene. In most places I know, these groups work in a meritocratic manner, focusing more on the technical content and less on people stuff. And this is important because both communities deal with things where having a local group of peers can help individual development a lot.

  • Sharing knowledge also means that both communities build a lot on and publish a lot of free software (FLOSS, free as in free speech). Most hackers nowadays have a GitHub repository with a subset of their projects published there, while ham radio constructors usually publish schematics and source code for their firmware, since both communities realize that remixing and improving other people's designs can lead to awesome results.

  • Another common core theme is searching for and overstepping boundaries and technical limitations. Just like shortwave bands given to amateur radio operators since professionals at the time considered it unusable, people considered buffer overflows as simply bugs rather than a possible method of arbitrary code execution. In both fields, talented members of the respective communities managed to disprove these statements, leading to technical development that benefited lots of people, even those outside these groups.

  • Both communities are centered around activities that can be done as a hobby, but also offer professional career paths. And in both cases, many technical developments that are used daily in the professional part of the scene started out as an experiment in the other, hobbyist part. Also, becoming a successful member of each community is pretty much orthogonal with having a college/university degree – that being said, such institutions can often give home to a small community of either group, examples at my alma mater include HA5KFU and CrySyS.

  • Activities of both groups is a common plot device in movies, and because of limited budgets and screentime, their depiction often lacks detail and sometimes even a slight resemblance to reality. This results in members of these communities having another source of fun, as collecting and pointing out such failures is pretty easy. For example, there are dedicated pages for collecting movies with characters using ham radio equipment and the popular security scanner Nmap alike.

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