Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hackerteen Entertains, Educates and Inspires

While "white hat" or ethical hacking has been around for ages, there has been very little effort on the part of its adherents to pass on these values to the next generation. To clarify, there has always been a element of ethical pressure directed at n00bs. "Script kiddies," neophytes too raw to do anything except duplicate others' hacks, are considered to be the lowest of the low, and are accorded nothing but contempt -- well, and scripts. But in terms of positively encouraging ethical hacking on the part of kids too little to actually script, I can't recall anything as cool as Hackerteen Vol 1.: Internet Blackout.

The comic's story involves Yago, a young computer prodigy who is sent to Hackerteen, a school for gifted kids. Run something like a dojo with freshmen taking White Belt classes and the seniormost students called Black Belts, the school provides the perfect environment for Yago. As his skills increase over the years, he finds himself being targeted by criminals seeking to hire him for nefarious ends. When his family runs into some financial misfortune, he accepts the wrong job and ends up getting tangled up in the criminals' schemes.

The story itself probably won't wow the average adult, but it's great for preteens and insidiously -- in a good way -- it sprinkles mature concepts like ODF in the story without explanation, with a footnote supplying a link so kids can learn more. If readers aren't interested they can skim over the unfamiliar terms and still understand the story.

Parents unfamiliar with the concept of ethical hacking may get nervous about exposing their children to a comic book that glorifies hacking. However, there is a strong moral current throughout the story, with predatory adults (the usual scum: suits, politicians) attempting to turn the Hackerteen students' elite skills towards criminal activities, to the utter scorn of the kids. My stepdaughter, who had some -- how shall I put it -- administrative difficulties in 5th grade for creatively accessing school systems, was quickly engrossed by the book, and it encouraged me that a kid who had made mistakes in the past was fascinated by a book that so unequivocally blasts similarly illegal acts.

Interestingly, Hackerteen is a real school that mainly teaches via distance learning. Admitting students between the ages of 14 and 19 and offering a 2-year program, the school teaches about open source software, ethics, psychology and entrepreneurship. Headquartered in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the school is currently seeking franchises around the world.

There is a clear moral message in the real world, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should do that thing. To educate kids that that applies to computers too, and to do it in an entertaining and respectful manner, as Hackerteen does, is incredibly valuable.

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