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Rory Cellan-Jones

Teenage hackers: Making a better world

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 24 Aug 09, 08:17 GMT

What kind of image does the phrase "teenage hacker" conjure up? A spotty, unfit adolescent, with poor social skills, trying to break into the Pentagon's network from his bedroom? Well, on Saturday, I found out just how inaccurate that is.

I had to pop into central London to get a new passport - and then wait around to collect it. So I went on to a "popular social network" (I won't name it, don't worry) and asked for suggestions as to how I should use my time. Someone pointed out that at Google's offices, around the corner from the Passport Office, an event called "Young Rewired State" was taking place.

I dropped in - and was confronted with a remarkable sight. Around 70 teenagers had gathered for this weekend event which is the brainchild of Rewired State - an organisation thinking of clever ways to free up public data.

The young hackers - I know that word once had negative connotations, but it's how the organisers describe them - were male, female, from near and far, and from all kinds of backgrounds. One wore a "Future Millionaire" T-shirt, others appeared to have their headphones surgically attached to their ears. Some described themselves as hardcore coders, others as web designers, and quite a few already seemed to have part-time jobs in the software industry.

But what they had in common was that they all seemed well-adjusted, sociable and incredibly smart. They split into groups, with mentors from Google and Rewired State, and set about their creative mission to come up with something useful by the end of the weekend. I wandered among the different groups as they spread themselves across the third floor of the Googleplex, taking advantage of the free wi-fi - and food - laid on by the search company.

People on computers at Young Rewired State event

One group was seeking a way to scrape bus timetable information from the Transport For London website, another was trying to give learner drivers easier access to the DVLA's theory test questions, and in another corner an earnest gathering was looking at a flipchart with the heading "Mapping Prison Capacity", and talking about how you put together a Google heatmap.

At lunchtime, they mingled, discussed software, the rights and wrongs of file-sharing, how to get free access to Spotify's premium music streaming service - and how they'd found out about the event through a friend or some enthusiastic teacher. At one point, a girl rushed up to the group I was with and said "we got some data!" - the sheer enthusiasm about the task in hand was infectious.

Then on Sunday afternoon, they presented their ideas to a panel of government officials and web luminaries. Among the winners was that group trying to free up London bus data - TFHell won the "Most Likely to be Bought By Google" award. One of the judges, Ben Hammersley of Wired UK, said he "found the standard of the work produced by 15-18-year-olds in many cases infinitely superior to that produced by government professionals."

Now, you could put a negative spin on all this. On a lovely sunny weekend, dozens of teenagers spent all their waking hours indoors, staring at computer screens and "hacking" into government databases, while munching pizza. But that, like so much written about young people in Britain, is a parody. Meeting the Young Rewired State participants brightened up my weekend - and made me realise there's a generation now growing up determined to use their computing skills to make all of our lives better.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Excellent, what a good job you dropped by... Yes the teenagers are our future and should be encouraged.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    With reference to the following in the article above:

    Ben Hammersley of Wired UK, said he "found the standard of the work produced by 15-18 year olds in many cases infinitely superior to that produced by government professionals."

    What I recall Ben saying is that he "found the standard of the work produced by 15-18 year olds in many cases infinitely superior to that produced by 25 year olds in Silicon Valley."

    It was a great event and kudos to the organisers for doing such a great job, and the young participants for coming up with some brilliant work.

  • Comment number 6.

    A tiny correction so that they get their dues - the mentors can from other organisations as well as RewiredState and Google. Ubergeeks from Last.Fm, moo.com, The Press association, mySociety, Yahoo, and the BBC as well as freelancer programmers and designers all gave their weekend to help out with this project.

  • Comment number 7.

    What a surprise, you went to a SOCIAL event and ended up finding out that some computer nerds are in fact perfectly sociable.


    In any case these are not what the media describes as hackers, more the sort of techno-geeks who have been improving the world with computers since the early 1980's when gaming really took off and the home PC became more than just a pipe dream. People like this started and grew the internet, they drove gaming boutiques and cafes, they produced animations for films, software that drives cars and makes sure your mail arrives on the correct doormat.

    That this may be of a shock to anyone is entirely down to the efforts of the likes of yourself in portraying my generation (I am now 30) of techno-geeks as being sad, lonely, unsocialble people locked in their bedrooms trying to break into militry computers, steal credit cards, download sadistic porn, copious amounts of pirated films and trawling the internet chat rooms posing as 16 year olds to entice kids.

    It's an image portrayed by the media due to selective fun-poking and story selection (Google, Youtube, MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo were all about the app, nothing on the hard work of the kids behind them yet Napster was all about the dirty little file-swappers). It's an image that I have had to disprove to 90% of the people I meet before being able to garner more than a sympathetic smile whenever I mention that I am a software engineer, 5 years ago the frist question was invariable "have you ever hacked anything?" asked in alternating tones of eagerness (usually by kids) or disgust.

    You did not "find out" that this was untrue on Saturday, you and the rest of your colleagues knew it from day one, but you chose to stereotype it regardless.

  • Comment number 8.

    'twas a pleasure to meet you and see your wonderbar Spotify app. If you want more info on that free Spotify premium just ask ;).

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    So light hearted comments about the attractiveness of 18 year old hackers are banned, but the sharing of information on copyright infringement is fine.

    I do wonder sometimes.

  • Comment number 11.

    "Teenage hackers: Making a better world"

    Not really hackers if they're making the world better are they.

    Just a bunch of techy geeks at a convention.

    Proper Hackers disrupt and cause inconvenience to big business and the common user alike.

  • Comment number 12.

    ravenmorpheus, you clearly don't understand the meaning of the word hacker. It doesn't only refer to malicious hackers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_%28programmer_subculture%29

  • Comment number 13.

    ravenmorpheus, I believe you are referring to crackers..

    Wikipaedia defines hacker as "A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary." [1] The Request for Comments (RFC) 1392, the Internet Users' Glossary, amplifies this meaning as "A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular."

    I believe that you are referring to a cracker...

  • Comment number 14.

    The term "hacker" was originally positive until it was coopted by journalists. Google "Jargon File" and read all about hacker culture - specifically the page "The Meaning of 'Hack'". The organisers are just trying to reclaim some of their cultural language.

  • Comment number 15.

    No ravenmorpheus, we are hackers, and proud of it. The name has a long and proud history since it was coined at MIT in the 60's, it is only the media who misused and subverted it in the 80's to mean something different, what we refer to as crackers.

    Hackers create, crackers destroy, simples!

    John.
    (Proper Hacker, Geek, Free-Software 'crusty', and damn proud of it)

  • Comment number 16.

    12. At 4:13pm on 24 Aug 2009, vpjayant wrote:

    ravenmorpheus, you clearly don't understand the meaning of the word hacker. It doesn't only refer to malicious hackers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_%28programmer_subculture%29

    ---

    I am aware of the correct meaning of the word hacker.

    My post was sarcasm. Guess that gets lost in print.

  • Comment number 17.

    '...how to get free access to Spotify's premium music streaming service.' Or 'stealing' as we say in English.

  • Comment number 18.

    Well, no offense to the teenager hackers, but the projects described in this blog are hardly rocket science. I would expect a competent programmer to do all those without much difficulty.

    On a more positive note. It is good to see teenagers involved with the "engineering" side of technology.

  • Comment number 19.

    The generation that before us is more experience, more times and easily enjoy their life.

    There are lots of different things that ethic hackers couldn't learned from real life like self-taught hackers, or simply teenage hackers. While the ethic hackers focus only on one thing that they know, teenage hackers could learn or do widely stuff that they experience from their daily lives. Do you think that teenage hackers aren't good as the hardcore ethics work for security labs?

    I'm not a teenage anymore (sometime feel like!), as a IT security tester, I was a hardcore teenage hacker loved to breach security, write viruses and exploit many government networks. However, today, there is many ways to use them right. You just see a part of it, don't judge so early.

  • Comment number 20.

    Slightly surprised that you seem to be suggesting all teenage computer users who actually know what their doing with the system would be "spotty, unfit adolescent, with poor social skills". This hasn't been the case apart from in the medias portrayal of them.
    Why would the media put about a false image of somethi... silly question really

  • Comment number 21.

    #7 - Hackerjack:
    sad, lonely, unsocialble people locked in their bedrooms trying to break into militry computers, steal credit cards, download sadistic porn and copious amounts of pirated films

    You've just described my teenage years there...

  • Comment number 22.

    Now, you could put a negative spin on all this. On a lovely sunny weekend, dozens of teenagers spent all their waking hours indoors, staring at computer screens and "hacking" into government databases, while munching pizza.

    I'd suggest you start using the phrase "mash-ups." Also, they were hardly hacking "into" government databases - that would suggest they had write access. I know it's pedantic, but marks a big ethical difference.

  • Comment number 23.

    At last. Some good press

  • Comment number 24.

    Good to see an article that at least has some grasp of the correct use of the term hacker.

    Having said that, even white hat hackers would be outlawed in Microsoft's world. Have you seen the bit in the EULA about being prohibited from working around technical limitations?

 

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