Ruby on Rails developer James Cropcho, known for his voting security research and MongoDB schema analyzer Variety, sat down with Major League Hacking co-founder Jonathan Gottfried for a video interview.
Cropcho got his start in technology just as many do — he was in the right place at the right time. “I was very fortunate, in that I had an elementary school where from the third grade on, there were mandatory computer programming classes twice a week,” he said. “I changed the startup scripts on the Windows machines so they all said, “Jim was here. Jim pranked me.”
Cropcho boasted of that prank to a teacher, who promptly made him change it back. But from then on, Cropcho’s path in life was set.
His big break happened in 2007, when he partnered with poll worker and privacy activist James Moyer. “Two Ohio activists have discovered that e-voting machines made by Election Systems and Software and used across the country produce time-stamped paper trails that permit the reconstruction of an election’s results — including allowing voter names to be matched to their actual votes,” Cnet reported.
“There was 10 Ohio counties affected, which used a specific voting machine,” Cropcho told MLH. He said he doesn’t blame developers, because there was nothing specifically bad about time-stamping each vote down to the exact second, rather than by the minute as in other voting machines. “All of the output of the machine is, in and of itself, innocuous,” he added.
The public will gradually learn to protect their own systems, Cropcho said. Everyone has a tipping point, whether it’s the news of government surveillance, corporate espionage, or ordinary identity thieves. But most people needn’t fear the scariest-sounding actions — domestic spying from the National Security Agency can collect huge amounts of data, but they probably can’t actually process that much information, he noted.
Rails is still Cropcho’s favorite programming language, along with some traditional Java. “I don’t mind brackets,” he joked. His latest project is for an online jeweler called RocksBox.
As for the best way to meet business partners on hacking projects, it’s the same as his childhood technology exposure: the right circumstances. Cropcho said he often meets people “just by being helpful,” such as replying to questions on mailing lists.