It used to be the case that parents would dream of their children heading off to medical school or burying themselves under a pile of law books. Today, proud moms who can boast of “my son the doctor” are quickly trumped by even prouder mothers who can say “my son the software engineer.” The pay is often higher, the future brighter and the beepers less likely to go off during Thanksgiving dinner.
But the road to respectable geekdom can be bumpier — and a great deal riskier — than the path to a medical residency or a call to the bar. Teenagers with an interest in curing the sick are unlikely to practice surgery in their spare time, while budding legal minds tend to join debating teams rather than dish out dodgy legal advice during a spare weekend.
Young geeks however, could well find themselves wasting hours on online games or worse, hanging out in the darker corners of the Internet, tweaking viruses, creating PC zombies, breaking into the Pentagon and starting international nuclear wars.
That last one might only be the dream of Hollywood scriptwriters but the combination of a little computer knowledge, a curious mind and always-on Internet access means that tech-savvy teenagers can get up to all sorts of dangerous — and illegal — mischief without ever having to leave their bedrooms. For parents, it’s a worry and for the kids themselves, it’s a wasted opportunity.
I’ve Got a Black Belt in Linux
One service that tries to channel that energy into positive results is Hackerteen, a Brazil-based course that offers young people classes in ethical hacking. The sessions, most of which can be taken long-distance, are divided into colored “belts” to make them as impressive to peers as martial arts feats, and are taught collaboratively. A team of six students, for example, may be set a task to recover data stolen from a company and stored on a server somewhere. The class could take the form of a role-playing game and use video, sound and even comics to drive the story and deliver challenges. Unlike other online courses which requires students to enter a password to begin, for example, Hackerteen students have to discover theirs.
At the moment classes are only available in Portuguese, although they are being translated into English and Spanish. And they’re long. Each of the six levels lasts four months and the whole course takes two years to complete. In the process, it covers entrepreneurship and hacker ethics as well as technical skills. A psychological exam at the green belt level helps Hackerteen gain a better understanding of the student but isn’t intended to test whether he’ll be using his new skills to break into company systems. Students with bad intentions, the company says, fail the ethics and security courses long before they reach this stage.
Interestingly, the entire course is taught on Linux rather than Windows. In part, that’s because Linux is the hacker’s favorite environment but it’s also because Hackerteen wants to put the focus on servers where the higher-paying jobs are.
That might be perfectly sensible. Hackerteen is run by 4Linux, a company that teaches open source software programming, specializes in computer security and has trained the digital crime units of a number of Brazilian police forces. It’s a practical company used to dealing with the business environment.
The Business of Hacking
But it does mean that Hackerteen is an odd mixture of different approaches. The Manga-style graphics and comic book stories make code-cracking seem entertaining and exciting. The challenges are always important and the learning structured so that one skill leads to another and solutions are always there waiting to be discovered.
Real life, of course, isn’t quite like that.
Professional network security staff are more likely to work in cubicles than their bedrooms. More of their job will be spent reminding employees to change their passwords and not to open strange attachments than tracking down stolen databases. And deadlines tend to be set by ambitious CTOs rather than the clocks on ticking bombs stashed in data centers.
On its website, Hackerteen reports that Pekka Himanen, a Harvard-based researcher of hacker communities, notes that for a hacker “controlled leisure and routine is as boring as forced labor. Hackers love to discover and overcome big challenges where they can freely use their intelligence.” That might be true and it’s something that Hackerteen avoids. Workplaces, on the other hand, tend to have lots of routine, plenty of forced labor and no leisure at all.
But if the company’s testimonials are anything to go by, Hackerteen works. Plenty of graduates seem to be taking the course and winning jobs at hi-tech companies.
As for the parents, who have to stump up fees of between $200 and $390 a month depending on the course level, at least they’ll have something to be proud of.