The 11th Annual EkoParty, the largest hacking convention in Latin America, was abuzz with over 1,600 hackers who showed up just to demonstrate their skills to an audience of government agencies and security industry leaders from across the globe.
Argentina, with its limited access to modern technology and problematic internet services might seem like one of the last places on Earth to look for top-level hackers, but this country is and has been the world’s leader in cracking computer systems for decades.
Why Argentina? Many Argentineans attribute their unique gift for hunting out vulnerabilities to their history, filled with oppressive military rule that made it difficult to be a citizen living within the law. “Those of us who came of age under a military junta — who were told which books to read, which movies to watch, which God to worship — had to learn to move around the laws. For us, hacking became a way of life,” Norma Morandini, a senator from Cordoba province, told an audience at EkoParty, according to the New York Times.
Although Argentinean coders may be able to hack anything, what they’re especially talented at is locating zero-day flaws in technology. These flaws, so called “zero-day” because they’re unknown problems in the code that the company or author suddenly has no time to correct since someone has broken through them into affected systems or devices, have valuable applications for governments and private businesses alike.
Private businesses want them because they don’t want to be caught by surprise, so hiring a hacker to find their zero-day issues can save a lot of time and headache developing patches on the fly to stop active hacking attacks. Governments often use zero-day hackers in the same way, though many go far beyond just preventing attacks.
Some allege that government agencies are hiring zero-day hackers in order to locate zero-day vulnerabilities in the software of other governments that would allow for virtual spying. Offensive digital weapons programs are also on the rise, with 40 governments admitting to developing this technology with the help of Argentina’s best.
Argentina has been a hotbed of hacking activity for over two decades, but the Chinese are gaining ground. With the added benefit of having easy access to the latest technology, Chinese hackers are cornering the market on breaking into phone software. This could mean that Argentina has hit its peak, but it will take a lot of work for the Chinese to begin to compete against the decades of experience that Argentina has already amassed.