Hackers, Fingerprints, Laptops, And Stickers

A discussion ensued about our crazy hacker ways the other night. I jokingly suggested that with as many stickers as we each had on our trusty companion machines, they might literally be as unique as a fingerprint. Cut straight to nerds talking too much math.

First off, you could wonder about the chances of two random hackers having the same sticker on their laptop. Say, for argument’s sake, that globally there are 2,000 stickers per year that are cool enough to put on a laptop. (None of us will see them all.) If a laptop lasts five years, that’s a pool of 10,000 stickers to draw from. If you’ve only got one sticker per laptop, that’s pretty slim odds, even when the laptops are of the same vintage.

Real hackers have 20-50 stickers per laptop — at least in our sample of “real hackers”. Here, the Birthday Paradox kicks in and helps us out. Each additional sticker provides another shot at matching, and an extra shot at being matched. So while you and I are unlikely to have the same birthday, in a room full of 42 people, it’s 90% likely that someone will have their birthday matched. With eight of us in the room, that’s 240 stickers that could match each other. (9999 / 10000) ^ (240 * 210 / 2) = about an eight percent chance of no match, so a better than 90% chance that we’d have at least one matching sticker.

But that doesn’t answer the original question: are our be-stickered laptops unique, like fingerprints or snowflakes? There, you have to match each and every sticker on the laptop — a virtually impossible task, and while there were eight of us in the room, that’s just not enough to get any real juice from the Birthday Paradox. (1/10,000) ^ 30 = something with -120 in the exponent. More than all the atoms in the universe, much less hackers in a room, whether you take things to the eighth power or not.

I hear you mumbling “network effects”. We’ve all gone to the same conferences, and we have similar taste in stickers, and maybe we even trade with each other. Think six degrees of separation type stuff. Indeed, this was true in our room. A few of us had the same stickers because we gave them to each other. We had a lot more matches than you’d expect, even though we were all unique.

So while the math for these network effects is over my head, I think it says something deeper about our trusty boxen, their stickers, and their hackers. Each sticker also comes with a memory, and our collected memories make us unique like our laptops. But matching stickers are also more than pure Birthday Paradoxes, they represent the shared history of friends.

Wear your laptop stickers with pride!

76 thoughts on “Hackers, Fingerprints, Laptops, And Stickers

  1. Stickers don’t define you, they reflect you. So don’t use stickers as a way to measure someone’s “hacker quotient”.

    The only sticker I’ve put on a computer was when I got some free stuff from the Linux Journal, including some “Linux Inside” stickers

    1. I just end up with those sticker that turn up in a little folder of ‘I like this, maybe I’ll use it’ and then never do… At least so far. For some reason stickers on things just looks cheap and tacky to me, even though I like the sticker…

      Also seems like the fingerprint idea is missing a spot, as its not just having the same stickers, its where you place them/ how prominently they are visible as well surely – If you go burying sticker x under y, or putting it on the bottom where it will almost never be seen it implies x was not as important to you..

      In the end seems like this sort of identification is more unique than it seems (even though it seems rather unique in the first place).

      1. This !
        Just as a fingerprint uses markers AND their position in relation to each other.

        Mind you, adding my own custom sticker helps make my laptop more distinctive.
        It’s a Linux / Gimp / Blender / Thunderscape / Qt / Inkscape / Audacity sticker.

        1. Take it up another level. The make and model of the laptop the hacker has stickers on plus the location, orientation and if it is partially hidden under another sticker or hiding another sticker partially… I mean screw the birthday paradox and create another paradox…

    1. I have zero stickers except the ones which were on computers when I bought them. Most of those simply identify what hardware and options are in the box. I do not wear clothing which advertises a particular brand. I do not think that advertising should run the world. And, I find Adblock very effective (12 ads blocked on this page).

      1. Do keep in mind (though I’m sure you already know this) that those ads you so effectively and proudly blocked, are paying for your free access to Hackaday.com. When those ads go away, so does your access to HaD. :-)

        1. That is where certain “Web 3.0” stuff has merit.

          If I could commit say $30 a month to donate to the sites I visit, and let the browser automatically hand out coins to each of those sites, that could solve the advertising problem.

          A quick search show the number of US web users who use ad blocking software is 26% and growing. That’s a lot of missed revenue and it’s only a matter of time before someone like Google or Facebook design such a system that’s hostile to users and a privacy nightmare.

        2. It is unacceptable to have the world ruled by advertising. There are supposed to be smart people here. Figure out another way. Or, maybe you are just sheep in hacker’s clothing.

        3. shill,the web was here,with huge groups of humans sharing every kind of information with no adds whatsoever,for decades.the comodification of everything
          train isnt heading for the light at the end of the tunnel,thats another train,whooop whooop baaarrrrrrrrrrrrrr

        4. I have nothing against advertising per se, but I don’t like the associated tracking. I heard that ad revenue without tracking it only mildly less than with, so I don’t understand why our governements (the EU) does not forbid tracking altogether.

      2. Yep, they clearly didn’t think of the people who don’t put stickers, like you and me. We blend in better with the crowd, which is good opsec, and you can forget about those loser corps with their sheep by the million. Nothing original about doing what everyone else is doing. This conversation should have been about how they’re clearly not hacker enough to do without advertising their nerditials. #notahack

  2. Having read the headline I thought it was going to be an article about peeling back the stickers on a laptop to get to a latent fingerprint of the owner which was then used to hack in via the fingerprint scanner. Still interesting read.

  3. This ignores minimalist hackers. These hackers don’t just not have stickers but they also remove all manufacturer stickers. Fear them for their 6.4KB viruses will get you! ;)

  4. “Real hackers have 20-50 stickers per laptop”

    I find that statement offensive and deprecating. It reinforces stereotypes and is a completely superficial judgement. Even when used in jest, like it probably was intended, it is the wrong way to attract attention.

    “Real” is what you are in your heart and what you do. The measure of a hacker is not the amount of stickers or other marks, visual or otherwise. Real is he or she who practices hacks, generally categorized as:
    1 – A clever, non­obvious solution to an interesting problem.
    2 – An appropriate application of ingenuity to creatively overcome an obstacle or limitation.
    3 – The technical equivalent of chewing gum and duck­tape.

    So, please, lets not make the quality of the hacker dependent on the amount of stickers.

    1. I’d take that argument one step further and say ‘Real is the person who considers, contemplates, creates novel ideas and then maybe goes as far as to design it, but doesn’t always ‘practice’ the hacks’ – The mindset and thought processes are really what define ‘hackers’ not if they have the time/money/interest to actually take the idea all the way to a finished build.

    2. I don’t have stickers on my laptops, but I don’t find the 20-50 stickers comment in any way offensive.

      Heavily stickered gear is a hallmark of a certain geek subculture, and identifies which conferences they’ve been to / group affiliations they have / etc.

      I know I’ve not been to those conferences; I’m happy to admit that, nothing to hide or be embarrassed about. I’m not part of that subculture in that way. I’m not offended by people showing they are.

      Personally, I’m not going to sticker my laptop because turning up for a meeting with a blue-chip company with a laptop covered in stickers might not inspire confidence – there’s still a lot of prejudice against hackers and geeks.

    1. Yes add 100 stickers and loudly talk about nonsense in a condescending tone and you are a hacker, also helps if you are in your mid 40’s working as a manager in retail and dress as anime characters on the weekend

  5. Only sticker I have on a computer, is one saying something like “OBD2 TESTER” on the old netbook I have designated for automotive diagnostics and logging.

    But I’m also the kind that absolutely LOATHE RGB rainbow seizure lightshow and plexi/glass panels, since that’s a panel that could be steel/aluminum and have noise dampening foam on the inside.

    Function >>> form.

  6. REAL hackers print their own stickers on paper they made from garden waste and stuck on with glue made from the egg white left over from their lunch, using ink from the octopus they caught using a hand woven net made from baling twine. (I am one of the sticker-free ones.)

  7. No stickers for me. I find the application of stickers on a device that is handled some what icky. The uneven surface with a bit of glue protruding from the edges of each sticker, collecting grime.

    Used to collect stickers when I was younger, had a box full somewhere – they were way to precious to actually stick on something

    1. Yea I would be on the side of the average person that thinks having their expensive tool covered in crap stickers is nifty, probably doesn’t have the best hygiene practices either. I mean look at cars, do you see a nice car with well dressed people with a gazillion stickers on it?

      No its usually a shitbox that hasn’t been washed in years half filled with garbage while the driver looks dirty and is wearing a batman shirt like they are 8 years old (metric years, not American)

  8. I always removed all stickers from my laptops, till once I almost accidentally wiped all data from my work laptop because it’s same type as other laptops in my company. Now it’s covered in stickers outside and inside to keep it apart from others visible as possible :)

  9. I guess actual placement of the stickers, orientation and overlap should be considered as well. Give two random people the same stickers and the same laptop and the results will highly likely vary a lot.

    1. I was waiting for this as well. Give 100 people the exact same 10 stickers and tell them they must all be on their laptop some place, and you’ll end up with 100 unique laptops. As unique as fingerprints.

    1. On my laptops and gear I use a lot of painting tape and masking tape to denote information for me (in the future) or others. eg: Which ports work and don’t work, the position of wifi antenna and it’s diagram etc.

      No need to spray cow pattern on my mobile computer :D

  10. most of the stickers on my laptop (it’s actually my work laptop and not owned by me, but it’s been to india, costa rica, and russia, among other places) are labels i’ve carefully pealed from cans of microbrew beer, usually IPAs and imperial stouts

      1. ALL OF THEM!…Seriously… and I memorize them all… ehem–coff..coff…ok ok I did’t read all !! I skipped some…but that was only cos my screen is covered with…stickers. A real hackers doesn’t need the full screen u know… :)

  11. I don’t put stickers on computers.
    With one exception.
    I have a raspberry pi 400 and I covered its underside with totally unrelated stickers: sticker warning about keeping detergent from children, sticker reminding to test an RCB, sticker about good taste of a cheese, and so on.

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