Hacking versus Vandalizing

If you recall, a few days ago, I had commented on the story “Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves“.  There remain lots of followups to the original story that cross my reader and I read them with interest to see the slant applied by various authors.  There’s one thing that still nags at me though.  The articles talk about the kids all “hacking” the Android device.

Over the weekend, many of the sites from NBC were either taken down or defaced by “hackers”.  Much has been written (and read) about this as well.

One of the books that was in my classroom library was Clifford Stoll’s “Cuckoo’s Egg“.  I still have my own personal copy on my bookshelf.  It was originally priced at $8.99 CDN.  The book  was one of the popular borrows in the classroom and a catalyst for discussions around hacking and computer crime.

Now, in education (and business), as long as there have been attempts to make for a reliable and consistent computing experience by removing access to some of the settings and to parts of the operating system, there have been attempts to apply controls.  It stops random adjustments that might result in a system that doesn’t work as expected or one that doesn’t work at all.  And, as long as there have been users, there have been users trying to get around these controls.

This sort of “hacking” is an activity often undertaken to see if the security controls could be overridden.  In fact, many organizations offer rewards for anyone who can bypass the security and demonstrate how it was done.  This is a real challenge for some!  In a twist on ethics, the true hacker takes great pride in the act and willingly shares with those charged to maintain things just where they dropped the ball.  It’s opened up a whole profession of “Ethical Hacking“.  As you can imagine, this generates really good discussion and a desire on some to become ethical hackers!

Unfortunately, the term “hacker” has taken on other meanings over the years.  In its worst, it’s applied to work that is somehow generating unexpected results.

Then, there’s a third option.  That’s when a person, desiring to circumvent controls, asks someone else to show them how it is done.  Often, these get classified as “hackers” as well.  I was so pleased that my students didn’t see copying someone else’s technique as “hacking”.  In their view, it was just “vandalizing” or “criminal” or “copycatting” – all somewhat less impressive.

Yet, the media often reports all as “hacking”.  What do you think?  Are they right?  Is the reading community sophisticated enough to recognize the differences?