Analysis & Opinions - Slate

Everything Is Hackable

| Feb. 10, 2023

Every year, an army of hackers takes aim at the tax code.

The tax code is not computer code, but it is a series of rules—supposedly deterministic algorithms—that take data about your income and determine the amount of money you owe. This code has vulnerabilities, more commonly known as loopholes. It has exploits; those are tax avoidance strategies. There is an entire industry of black-hat hackers who exploit vulnerabilities in the tax code: We call them accountants and tax attorneys.

Hacking isn’t limited to computer systems, or even technology. Any system of rules can be hacked. In general terms, a hack is something that a system permits, but that is unanticipated and unwanted by its designers. It’s unplanned: a mistake in the system’s design or coding. It’s clever. It’s a subversion, or an exploitation. It’s a cheat, but only sort of. Just as a computer vulnerability can be exploited over the internet because the code permits it, a tax loophole is “allowed” by the system because it follows the rules, even though it might subvert the intent of those rules.

Once you start thinking of hacking in this way, you’ll start seeing hacks everywhere. You can find hacks in customer reward programs; in financial systems; in politics; in lots of economic, political, and social systems; and against our cognitive functions. Airline frequent-flier mileage runs are a hack. The filibuster was originally a hack, one invented in 60 BCE by Cato the Younger, a Roman senator. Gerrymandering is a hack. Hedge funds are full of hacks. So are professional sports: curving a hockey stick, hitting a cricket ball over your head, or showing up on a Formula One racetrack with a six-wheeled car (the Tyrell racing team in 1975—really).

Applying this computer framework more broadly is a way to tease out a lot of why today’s economic, political, and social systems are failing us so badly. And by thinking that way, we can apply what we have learned about hacking defenses in the computer world to those more general hacks.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Schneier, Bruce.“Everything Is Hackable.” Slate, February 10, 2023.

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