Student hacking: Awesome or awful?

Yes Rob Burggraaf

While hackers appear frequently in the news and other media as criminals who steal vast amounts of data ranging from email passwords to Social Security numbers, the truth is that a similar number of relatively anonymous hackers work just as furiously to thwart those engaged in illegal activity. Large corporations and even the U.S. government employ computer-savvy individuals to expose vulnerabilities in their systems in an effort to protect the public.  

As something that sparks students’ imagination and engagement, hacking also has untapped educational value. The Common Core State Standards have called for increased rigor and levels of critical thinking in the classroom, and students need to develop digital skills to function in the world. What better way to achieve these goals than to turn hacking into a problem-solving endeavor?


In my years of teaching, one thing I’ve noticed is that students are inherently curious. Introduce the basics of a new app like Pic Collage, and before long they’ll have figured out, without any help, how to change the background, add stickers, etc. If there’s a button, students will push it. If there’s a menu, they will explore the options. This is exactly the type of lifelong learning skill we want them to develop and apply with purpose.


Besides, regardless of how many layers of security we install, the complexity of the passwords we require for profile removal or the control we think we have over devices, our students will find the loopholes. Adults are afraid to touch buttons that will have unknown consequences. Students are not. Adults take great pains to bar all the doors. Students will point out the window that we neglected.


The key to what happens next lies in our response as educators. Do we treat hacking as a heinous evil and punish students for their curiosity and problem-solving prowess? My experience has been that this approach will only engender resentment and a greater desire to elude the system. Chances are that any exposed flaw in your security will soon pass semi-secretly around the student body in a display of rebellion. 


Instead, what if we offer incentives for students to harness those critical-thinking and creativity skills to find and report flaws that have gone overlooked so they can be remedied before they cause a greater problem in the student body at large? The school district’s devices are kept safer, students are rewarded for their persistence and hard work, and hacking has found its place in an engaging, digital age education.

No Kim Garcia

A couple of years ago, my computer science class explored ethics in computing. Hacking was a hot topic even then, so we held a formal debate on it. Student groups researched both sides of the issue, and each group presented their arguments.

Many of the students thought hackers were good guys who do companies a favor by exposing security holes. They pointed to companies who hired known hackers for their expertise in identifying internal network security issues. Needless to say, there was a lot of excitement about cultivating their burgeoning hacking skills on our district's internal network.

But the most compelling argument of the day was a great analogy that one student presented: If you leave the front door of your house unlocked, is it OK for a stranger to come in, sit down and leave you a note on your kitchen table? No! This student argued that the same logic applies to hacking. His group also shared that malicious hacking is against the law. In the end, the panel of student judges agreed that hacking is unethical and that there are better ways to alert companies to possible security issues.

There are also many other reasons hacking is a bad idea. For school districts, hacking wastes a lot of network administrators and computer technicians' time — not to mention taxpayer money — on investigating malicious attacks. Their time would be better spent configuring and maintaining educational resources. Hackers also risk exposing the confidential data about students and staff that schools store on their servers.

Recently, a neighboring school district's website was hacked. Hackers posted obscene photos and offensive messages in place of the district's content. No confidential or financial data was stolen from the site, so why did the hacker do it? I believe people who hack without financial gain do so to expose others' faults and prove that they can outsmart others.

It's true that companies, school districts and individuals must set up secure networks and use strong passwords. But as my student pointed out, it's not OK for hackers to exploit others' mistakes or shortcomings.

Let's talk to our students about the importance of password security so we can all protect ourselves, and let's talk to them about digital citizenship . There are many more ethical ways to use their computing expertise to help companies and districts secure their networks.

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