I want to get something clear for people out there: ‘hacker’ is not a dirty word. For most people today it conjures up some hoodied techno-villain, a shady figure doing digital voodoo down the phone line to people from darkened rooms at 3am. This is, unfortunately, a huge misrepresentation of what a hacker really is and has been since the 50’s, when it was used to describe ham radio operators who used unconventional methods to boost their signal strength.
Let me drop some knowledge:
If you go and look at The Jargon File, an online dictionary of computer and programmer slang which has been around in some form or another since 1975 at MIT and Stanford University, you’ll find the entry for ‘hacker’ reads thus:
[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]
1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users’ Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.
2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing [sic] about programming.
3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.
4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in ‘a Unix hacker’. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.”
If you count, only one of those 8 possible definitions is negative. The rest all use terms like ‘expert’, ‘enthusiast’ and ‘enjoys exploring’, things which are lauded in education today. I think my favourite one is #7 though: “One who enjoys the challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.” It sounds rakish and cheeky at the same time, and hopefully the kind of hacker I try to be. I’m not an ace programmer, or an amazing robot engineer, I’ve only ever soldered with my dad holding the parts (and that was more than 20 years ago!)… but I love coming up with solutions based on what I have to hand. That’s another thing I have to thank him for, apart from my understanding that machines are just tools (something my generation seem to have forgotten somewhere), my ability to assess an obstacle in discrete parts and devise a systematic solution to overcome it. And what’s really cool; I use it every single day for everything. What’s the most efficient way to make a cup of tea, brush my teeth, pack my bag then cycle to school… all at once? (Turns out; it’s swallow your toothbrush, leave your laptop at home and have a cold cup of tea waiting when you get in.)
My dad is a hacker from way back. He made our kitchen furniture without nails or any fixings other than pine dowels before I was born. It’s still the daily use table set in his house. Our sound system was made by dad, including the mixer which he soldered and wired together and the huge speakers which were taller than me at age 3. He programmed computer games for me on audio cassettes which I played plugged into the TV; and when I deleted the hard-drive bombing around in DOS on our old IBM 286 at age six or seven, he was only mad for a little while. My dad can fix, build, repair or design anything and he always shanghai’d my brother and I into being his work crew. I learned a lot in the school holidays; we laid foundations and built walls, paved outdoor spaces, plumbed automatic sprinkler systems, built brick pizza ovens and fully plumbed outdoor kitchens…and more. He undertakes projects with the same tenacity every single time; he wants to finish everything to his best potential. That said, he knows he doesn’t know everything so he is steady and methodical from the start.
He lives by three maxims:
- Measure twice, cut once.
- If you put everything back where you found it and clean, it will be right there and ready for you when you need it next.
- If you don’t know, ask or find out from a book.
I try to teach these three things to Class 3 and it seems to take with some of them, although I can understand retrospectively my dad’s frustration when he found tools in random places because I had been tinkering on something or other, made a go-kart from his oxy-acetaline welding trolley, or left the lid off the glue!!! My dad is a hacker: he helped me design the trigger mechanism on my flame thrower for a 7th grade project where we had to make a working model of something (my teacher had laughingly agreed when I asked if I could make a flamethrower) and helped me cut the metal pipe for the barrel using a hacksaw and his bench vise.
My mum is a hacker: she could whip up an enviable parrot costume for a school play in a single evening from cardboard, masking tape and a kids’ paint set. She has always grown her own veg and thoroughly landscapes every garden she has had, to make the most of the natural terrain and sunlight. My mum used to make our clothes for years, including tiny double-breasted suits for our cousin’s wedding. But more than this; my mum was programming back when computers used punch cards and took up the whole floor of a building. She was working in a low-level government job, coding the payroll system on freaking pieces of cardboard. You are definitely kickin’ it old-school when you’re poking holes in bits of card and poking them into a computer.
So consequently, I am a hacker: I frequently gather information from multiple sources and combine it into a presentable format for my students to maximise my lesson outcomes (including playing online games) and my students keep personal blogs. I rig the sound system at the Easter Fayre when the mic won’t work, so that I can play music from YouTube through my phone and over the PA while the breakdance crew performs. I provide a slideshow hastily cobbled on the fly for the school assembly to provide context for the head’s talk about courage, while she is giving it.
Any time you use the resources to hand by combining them to produce something greater than you could have done with any one alone, you too are a hacker. Any time you create something new or refine a line of code to its more efficient form, you are a hacker. Any time you make a shadow puppet theatre with your kids using torches and blankets, you are a hacker. Any time you test the limits of a system or device to analyse where it’s strengths and weaknesses are, you are a hacker. Whether you use that information to help or harm dictates what kind of hacker you are.
Ever since the Mentor was arrested in 1986 and wrote his Hacker’s Manifesto in Phrack, ‘hacker’ has been a negative term meaning a malicious programmer intent on stealing your information or doing some digital harm to you. Suddenly the media was freaking out: these ‘weirdo computer geeks’ had so much power, which they could wield remotely and anonymously (with menacing handles like c0mrade, Dark Dante and Captain Crunch) and it was made frightening. The word only got dragged further through the mud with the rise of ‘phone hacking’ scandals in Britain and internationally, so that now there is only any positive meaning left in it amongst the hacker community itself. If you use the information you gain from your online activities to harm others or to benefit yourself at the expense of others (the aforementioned gentlemen for example), you are a black-hat hacker or more correctly a cracker.
Groups like LulzSec and Anonymous who refer to themselves as ‘hacktivists’, who often exploit security system weaknesses to deliver social and political messages usually flaunt the line between legality and illegality and are known as grey-hat hackers. While they usually do not act for selfish means, they are not afraid to break the law and often commit illegal acts to achieve their ends. These people are usually pranksters and activists who enjoy creating chaos online. A common phrase amongst grey-hat groups is they “do it for the lulz.”
White-hat hackers are people who work to ensure the security of the internet isn’t compromised by the other two groups, or test the limits of systems to analyse their potential for alternative uses and modification. There are several organisations of white hat hackers out there, and a new scheme called HackerOne is running which pays a bounty to people who report security bugs rather than exploit them, like the now infamous ‘Heartbleed’ bug.
Just like Loyd Blankenship, I’m here to declare my Hacker Manifesto, for all the hackers out there:
1. Take the Power Back. Hacking should be praised and vaunted in our modern society, not feared and reviled. The way to change this mindset is through education, which is what we are trying to do now in schools across Britain. If we can teach the kids how to run the system and understand how it works,we are giving them the knowledge and power they need in order to protect themselves from those who would do them harm. If we are all white-hat hackers to some level or other, the black-hats will find less easy pickings online. From Nigerian email scams to those pop-ups telling you to update your java/media player which install a trojan or worm, people would be less ignorant of the risks and more able to resolve any issues which came up.
2. Drop Knowledge. The computer needs to stop being a disposable ‘magic box’ which people have in their homes. It is a tool and a connection device which is more open than any phone, something many parents still don’t understand. The awe which being able to repair even minor problems on the computer can inspire amongst others is an indication of the widespread lack of knowledge about the workings of computer systems, and this lack of understanding only lends strength to the public fear of hackers. It’s like Voldemort; the more mysterious and nebulous he is, the more everyone is afraid of him. People fear magic because they don’t understand it. We need every computer user to see the internet for what it really is, to understand the tool they are using. You wouldn’t let someone drive a digger until you had shown them how it all worked and explained the risks, yet we put people online every day who are open to manipulation and attack due to lack of understanding. Don’t be afraid to take the time and explain it to people, especially kids. Think about it; the more they know, the less you’ll have to fix for them down the road.
3. Share the love. Spread your awesome hacks and enthusiasm to everyone who will listen. Tell them about how you made a sick dance tune in your bedroom on SonicPi, or how you made a lego prosthetic arm, or how you made a bullet time camera by linking 48 Raspberry Pi camera units together. The more we can get people to realise that they too can use technology to make their lives a little bit easier or better, hacking will take off. “You mean that for around 30 quid, I can have a high-def media centre linked to the web? Show me how!”
4. Be MacGyver. There used to be a show called MacGyver; I loved that show when I was a kid. He would get into crazy scrapes and dire situations and would always ‘hack’ his way out. Not in the literal sense with a sword, but he would use the things he found around him to create some diversion or rescue apparatus, overcome the baddies and save the day. His gimmick was that he never used a gun, he just thought up creative solutions using things for alternate reasons than they were designed. He was a straight-up, stone-cold hero. We need more people who are creators and innovators, rather than consumers and followers. Those who see problems and create solutions from the resources available are to be prised above all others, especially in today’s society. With climate change, Heartbleed, the hole in the ozone layer, all these oil wells that keep rupturing, the plastic pile in the Pacific Ocean and the crazy lag on my minecraft server we need creative minds who can whip up efficient ways to help fix these and future travesties. As Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Hack the Planet!