Jul 02 2014

There’s More to Hacking Than Meets the Eye

Students gain valuable technical and life skills by engaging in creative, exploratory programming for educational and social purposes.

Meet Jace. She's a fifth-grader at a public school — popular, athletic and a proficient hacker.

Jace can open an ­expensive padlock in under 60 seconds with a pick and nimble fingers. She can solder circuit boards (as seen at right) to make her own gadgets. She can stop cyberbullies in their tracks through social engineering and basic, brute-force hacking. She can figure out on her own how to configure most pieces of home technology and track people who contact her online to verify their identities.

She's also savvy enough to apply this same dedication to whatever she does, whether it's arts and crafts, playing the drums or training for cross-country track meets.

Young people such as Jace don't fit the conventional portrait of a hacker. They aren't antisocial or online lurkers hiding out in their basements, emptying the bank accounts of the hard-working middle class. They're a different kind of hacker.

Don't Whack the Hack

Contrary to popular belief, hacking isn't illegal. Rather, it's a methodology for learning and changing how things work. Hacking has a bad reputation because it's mysterious, powerful and scary to those who don't understand how their anti-virus program–protected systems can be compromised.

But it's not magic, and it's not easy. It takes study, research, effort, trial and error, creativity, and learning from many failures, which, incidentally, is exactly the kind of work ethic we want today's students to have.

Do criminals use hacking to steal and destroy? Yes. But not all hackers are criminals.

Through hacking, Jace has learned to be more resourceful, more confident and more capable of learning on her own. She's also more curious about how things work. Best of all, because of hacking, she's safer both online and off. How so? She probably wouldn't buy the same lock to protect her property that many others would buy because she sees locks differently than the average person. She's able to see how security gets circumvented and how people get manipulated.

With some great irony, society wants us to equip children with technology to better educate them, but doesn't seem to want them to know enough to protect themselves from the technology.

The educational benefits of teaching hacking aren't lost on Jace — or on any of the young people who endeavor to try it. By teaching students of all ages how to hack, we teach them to be the masters of their technology in the world around them and to "fail well" as they learn from their mistakes.

As the old proverb goes: If at first you don't succeed, try again.

The More You Know

The Institute for Security and Open Methodologies defines hacking as "a method of problem solving that combines resourcefulness, logic, creativity and study." By learning to hack, students discover how things work and learn how to distinguish "the facts from the fraud, the real from the fake, and the bad from the good" when they're online.

The organization's Hacker Highschool project provides a set of hands-on, e-book lessons that are designed specifically for teenagers to learn cybersecurity and critical Internet skills. Lessons cover what it means to be a hacker, networking concepts and more. For additional information, visit hackerhighschool.org.