Two years ago Richard Thieme spoke on “Playing Through the Pain: The Impact of Dark Knowledge on Security and Intelligence Professionals” for Def Con 24. He relied on dozens of experiences provided by colleagues over a quarter-century, colleagues from NSA, CIA, corporate, and military. Responses to the presentation have often been emotional and have corroborated his thesis. The real impact of this work on people over the long term has to be mitigated by counter-measures and strategies so scars can be endured or,even better,incorporated and put to use.
In this presentation, Thieme elaborates those strategies and counter-measures. In what is likely his final speech at Def Con, he speaks directly to the “human in the machine” AS a human being. It’s not about leaving the profession: it’s about what we can do to thrive and transcend the challenges. It‘s about “saving this space,” this play space of hacking, work and life, and knowing the cost of being fully human while encountering dehumanizing impacts.
It is easier to focus on exploits, cool tools, zero days, and the games we play in the space that “makes us smile.” It is not so easy to know how to play through the pain successfully. The damage to us does not show up in brain scans. It shows up in our families, our relationships, and our lives.
Thieme is not preaching, he is sharing insights based on what he too has had to transcend in his own life. They call a lot of us “supernormals,” which means we discovered resilient responses to deprivation, abuse, profound loss … or the daily challenges of work that makes clear that evil is real. We are driven, we never quit, we fight through adversity, we create and recreate personas that work, we do what has to be done. It pays to know how we do that and know THAT we know so we can recreate resilience in the face of whatever comes our way.
A contractor for NSA suggested that everyone inside the agency should see the video of “Playing Through the Pain.” A long-time Def Con attendee asks all new hires to watch “Staring into the Abyss,” a talk Thieme did a few years before. This subject matter is seldom discussed aloud “out here” and by all accounts is not taken seriously “inside,” which is perhaps why there have been half a dozen suicides lately at NSA and a CIA veteran said, “I have 23 suicides on my mind, the most recent senior people who could not live with what they knew.”
The assumption baked into this talk: real hacking, its ethos and its execution, provides the tools we need to do this damn thing right.
This talk is in honor of Perry Barlow and the EFF.