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A Look Inside Dallas' Growing Hacker Scene

A Dallas Hackers Association meeting

When you think of hackers, you might think of Silicon Valley. But did you know North Texas has its own vibrant community of hackers and cybersecurity enthusiasts?

Earlier this month, dozens of people gathered at a Korean karaoke bar in Dallas but not to sing. It was a monthly meeting of the Dallas Hackers Association. They meet there monthly.

There, people give fast-paced talks on cybersecurity, they network and they set up laptops for Capture the Flag –  a kind of game where hackers hunt down computer bugs.

When the Dallas Hackers Association launched six years ago, only a handful of people came, according to its founder, Wirefall.

"There's a lot of security needs here, a lot of security folks, but as it becomes more popular, a crowd, I think attracts a crowd, like a crowd, and it's just been blowing up," Wirefall said.

Some hackers conceal their names, for security reasons. They want to avoid being doxxed, or having their identities exposed, by other hackers for malicious reasons.  Some don't share their names to protect the businesses that have hired them to test their networks.

Over the years, North Texas has grown into a hacker hub. Some say it's because of the telecommunications and information technology companies are based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which some call "Silicon Prairie."

Philip Wylie teaches ethical hacking and web application penetration testing at Richland College.

"There's a lot of companies here, and a lot of companies have their headquarters, and you have a lot of business here, and when you got business, you got information that needs to be secured," Wylie said. 

You may think hacking is just bypassing security or cracking a password. But really hacking is taking something and stretching it beyond its intended means, says Tinker, a co-organizer of the association.

"I hack into computers and I break into buildings," Tinker says. "As I'm able to do that, I go to my clients who have hired me to hack into their own computers, I go to them, I show them how I did it so they can fix it so the actual malicious actors can't do it as well." 

There are all types of hackers: corporate hackers, also called white hats; and criminal hackers, called black hats.

For those who want to learn more about ethical hacking, Philip Wylie of Richland College started the Pwn School Project. It's a free, educational cybersecurity meetup.

"I have students that come through my class, that might be the first class they take at the college, but hacking is just so interesting to people," Wylie said. "Some of my students were asking me, 'Where do I go to learn beyond this class?'" 

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Wylie was at the karaoke bar for the Dallas Hackers Association. Larci Robertson was also there. She's a cyberthreat intelligence manager for a marketing company in Dallas.

"Coming to the normal meetups with Dallas Hackers and some other ones, it's typically 95% men," Robertson said. 

So she started the Dallas chapter of Women of Security, or WoSEC, " get more women involved in not only the job field, but their communities, so you could go to Dallas Hackers and not sit by yourself, and have somebody have your back." 

The reality of tech and cybersecurity? Most in the industry are white men.

Hudney Piquant is a corporate hacker. He was in Fort Worth at B-Sides DFW, an annual security conference.

"When I go to conferences or training, I'm typically like the only black person there," Piquant said. "A lot of times with cybersecurity, a lot of people overall feel like it's over their head, but then also for the black community, it's not a common thing to do. So, if they can see another black person doing it, I think they'll feel like this is something that's possible, because they see somebody else doing it."

Diversity matters in the hacking world because cybersecurity risks affect everyone. Things like massive data breaches have become the norm.

Tinker says, "A lot of people get labeled as paranoid when they say oh the government's listening to everything I say, or my phone's tracking me, etcetera. The truth is ... everybody's information is being sopped up and put into big computers." 

Information that's being tracked, and could be hacked.

As breaches continue, and technology evolves, hackers say interest in hacking is growing -- and so will the local hacker scene.

Galilee Abdullah is a producer for KERA's "All Things Considered" and evening newscasts.