Experts are split on whether the relationship between ethical hackers and government has improved

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with Aaron Schaffer

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LAS VEGAS — Cyber experts are about evenly split on whether the often-complicated relationship between the government and ethical hackers has improved in the past two years. 

Those years included the launch of a slew of programs inviting ethical hackers to search for bugs in government computer systems and a landmark Supreme Court ruling limiting when prosecutors can bring cases against security researchers that violate tech products’ narrow terms of service. 

But they also included a renewed government push to limit the strongest forms of encryption that was widely panned by cybersecurity experts. Former president Donald Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories related to cybersecurity, election fraud and other topics also spurred broad cynicism in the hacker community, according to experts in our Cybersecurity 202 Network poll. 

In general, the government is less trusted these days,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a Department of Homeland Security official during the George W. Bush administration who now runs Red Branch Consulting. “My sense is that relationships are weaker now, rather than stronger.”

Overall, 51 percent of Network respondents said the relationship between the ethical hacking community and the U.S. government has improved since 2019, while 49 percent said it had not. 

We’re releasing the poll during the Black Hat cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas, which, along with the adjoining conference Def Con, is often a gauge of the relationship between cybersecurity and government. 



a flat screen tv sitting on stage with stage lights and an audience: President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debate in Nashville on Oct. 22.


© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debate in Nashville on Oct. 22.

That relationship hit a low point in 2013 after revelations about broad National Security Agency spying by leaker Edward Snowden.

Def Con organizers asked federal employees not to attend that year. NSA Director Keith Alexander spoke at Black Hat and was met with heckling and jeers. 

Things had improved significantly by 2019 — the last year the conferences were held in person. That year, 72 percent of Network respondents told us the relationship had gotten better.   

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