25 April 2018

Hackers are Humans Too

Source: Amazon.com
I just finished watching one of my favorite movies from the mid-90s that still has some very timely messages, even if the visual effects come across as extremely corny. The movie is Hackers and it came out it 1995. If you haven't seen it, or just can't remember watching it, it's available on Amazon Prime Video, so go watch it and then come back, I'll wait. If you don't want to wait, you check out this awesome summary of the main protagonists of the film, courtesy of Nicholas Slayton's Medium article about the 20th Anniversary of the film published back on September 16, 2015 (yes, that means the film is now 22.5 years old, but whatever, it still rocks!).
The film follows Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller), a hacker known as “Zero Cool” who crashed more than a thousand computers and hurt the Stock Market as a kid. He’s banned from using a Internet-connected computer until he’s 18, which the film quickly gets to as Dade and his mom move to New York City. He rechristens himself “Crash Override” (possibly the only hacker name more awesome than Zero Cool) and soon finds himself entangled with other hackers — the loony Cereal Killer, cocky Phreak, wise Lord Nikon and Dade’s enemy and crush, Kate “Acid Burn” Libby. The heroes are a racially and gender-mixed group from different backgrounds but a shared belief in altruism.
Now, that doesn't give anything away that you don't find out about in the first 15 minutes or so, plus, the movie is 22+ years old, spoilers are to be expected on some level. But seriously, the film covers some very interesting themes and topics like youth activism, doing the right thing even in the face of corrupted authorities, and self-empowerment, to name a few. But what I find the most interesting is the theme the authorities in the film are trying to push that ALL hackers are bad and criminal. I find it very interesting that so often that is the message we have heard in the media regarding hackers and the hacking community and yet, how often are we alerted to major issues and online concerns from altruistic hackers trying to make the world a better and safer place?

Source: SideReel.com
I don't watch a lot of TV but one of my favorite shows fits right into this same topic, but handles the actual technology a bit better and more realistic, Mr. Robot from the USA Network. This one is also on Amazon Prime Video, at least the first two seasons are. Season Three is still not available as it's the newest season, but I am waiting very patiently for it to come on over. I am loving this show because as I have learned with my job, there is way more to online safety than some people realize and Data Privacy is a MUCH larger issue than many educators (and the general population) even care to realize. We all LOVE free apps and services but how many of us realize that if we aren't paying for the service or app that we then become the product being harvested and sold? The data we provide to the app or service becomes a digital currency of sorts that is traded and sold to others so the company behind our current favorite free app or service can continue to exist. And yet, when the companies behind the free services and apps suddenly tell us they need to start charging a fee to stay alive how often do we freak out and lose it because we now have to provide them with money to continue using what we've grown accustomed to using for free?

A great example of this is Padlet changing their pricing structure and what seemed like half the educational sector on Twitter had a fit! Jeff Bradbury of the TeacherCast Educational Network was able to discuss these changes with Nitesh Goel, the Padlet CEO directly and it was a great discussion. If you haven't already heard the interview I highly recommend it. But the gist of the discussion was that Padlet has grown to more than 10 Million monthly users and it's not feasible for them to keep supporting that level of use for free. There are a LOT of things that have to happen in the background for any service to work and Padlet has been covering their own bill fully, which can't be cheap. There has been a paid tier for the last 2-3 years, but most people never knew about it. It really is a great episode of the TeacherCast Podcast and I highly recommend you go listen to the full thing.

Back to the original subject. I love both the movie Hackers and the series Mr. Robot because they both showcase what hackers can do and yet, unlike most media where hackers are only ever presented in the negative light, both of these media examples showcase the wide range of hackers and what they can do along with some of the reasoning behind what they do. I'm not saying all hackers are any one thing because they aren't. There are some very malicious hackers out there causing all sorts of trouble and these hackers are known as Black Hats while the hackers using their skills more for good are known as White Hats. But the group I find the most interesting are the ones in the middle, the ones who don't necessarily have a single viewpoint and can be swayed back and forth between the two sides. These hackers are known as Gray Hats because they aren't on one single side of the fence but do a little of both good and bad, depending on their moods. I feel that more often than not, most hackers actually fall into this category than either side. This is why we need to help our students see the world as it is and not try to shut them out so much. We need to trust them more and allow them to make mistakes in an educational setting so we can help them establish a moral compass so they can make those hard decisions about what they should be doing online.

If nothing else comes from this rambling post, I hope you do take some time to watch these shows on hackers and the hacker community to see they are multi-dimensional people, just like you and me.

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