sean cassidy : Privilege

in: personal

January 2006: a friend and I were attending ShmooCon, a hacker convention in DC. It was our first one ever. Being high school students, we had to take the LIRR to Penn Station, and then a subway to the Port Authority to grab a bus to DC, since a plane ticket was too expensive. It took forever.

Every year, ShmooCon holds a charity event that's hacker-themed. That year's event was the hacker arcade: drop in a quarter, play a game, earn points towards a raffle. All proceeds to charity. My friend and I built a machine that would let you play Nethack for 25¢. To accept money and play the game, we built a container that would hold the money and sort coins. It had a switch inside that, when depressed, pressed a key on an attached keyboard. The game code would wait for that keypress before starting. It was simple. It accepted correctly-sized slugs, but we figured that was pretty unlikely at a charity event.

This is what it looked like:

Picture of our Nethack arcade machine coin
mechanism

You can actually see that the function keys at the top are disabled. We disabled them because that's what the coin-op mechanism used to register a successful coin deposit in my horrible Perl ncurses program1. Here's some detail of the inside, you can see that there are different slots for different sized coins, and here's a picture of the instructions. It was to my great satisfaction that someone hacked our game, despite our "security precautions". It was my first lesson in designing secure software.

In 2006, 9/11 was still burned into our minds. There were soldiers with rifles and dressed in fatigues in airports and on subway platforms. This was normal. We carried this metal-tube-with-wires onto the LIRR, and then walked through the streets of New York City, and onto a crowded subway platform, past armed soldiers. One holding an M4A1 even nodded at me as we passed.

I was carrying a metal cylinder with wires poking out of it. No one gave us a second glance. What were they thinking? We nervously joked about it afterwards. That was the first time we even thought that our Nethack machine might look like a bomb. Maybe they could tell it wasn't a bomb from 20 feet away, but I doubt it.

My friend and I are white. We don't have olive skin, nor do we look Muslim. We would never have made it to ShmooCon if we did. I didn't realize it at the time, but we were very privileged to be white. It gave us a freedom we didn't even know others lacked. When I hear about Ahmed Mohamed being arrested for bringing a breadboard clock into school, I think about when I carried a metal cylinder with wires poking out past armed soldiers onto a crowded subway train, and I worry.


  1. If anyone has any pictures of our setup from the ShmooCon 2006 Hacker Arcade, please let me know! I'd love to see them. 

Sean is the CTO and co-founder at DefenseStorm, a cloud cybersecurity startup.

Follow @sean_a_cassidy