Teach children to hack ethically to save them from dark side

Teach children to code and, yes, even to hack so they learn about the power and potential perils of the internet, says Nick Banks.

Teach children to hack ethically to save them from dark side
Teach children to hack ethically to save them from dark side

As part of wider initiative changes designed to boost computer literacy for British children, the government has introduced education programmes in schools to teach children how to code, rather than simply how to use computers.

In today's digital age, teaching children to code seems like a fantastic idea. Children are already spending huge amounts of time using technology, whether it's a laptop, smartphone or tablet device and these IT skills will be essential in their future careers. Whether these children graduate to a tech related role when they leave school or not, providing these skills will serve them well in any workplace. However, whilst we must help a new generation of competent workers prepare for the digital world, how can we make sure that children will use their coding and programming skills for good and not wrongdoing?

We've seen a number of technological innovations over the years, aimed at equipping children with basic programming and coding skills – from the Raspberry Pi to the recently launched Hackaball, a programmable ball that is aimed at six- to 10-year-old children. This demographic has been a key target for the UK government, which has championed the primary computing curriculum since September 2014.

However, with these skills being so easily transferable to illegal activities such as hacking and cyber-crime, how can we ensure that the lure of mischief, malice and money won't sway children to "the dark side"? In January this year, a seven-year-old girl hacked a public Wi-Fi network in just over ten minutes by teaching herself how to set up a rogue access point to activate what is known as a "man in the middle" attack. We know that this is already happening – hackers as young as 16 years old have been arrested for cyber-crime, and the Home Office has warned that young video game hackers could be the next generation of cyber-criminals.

So how can we tackle this? When it comes to children and young adults, the first place to start is at school and at home. Responsible adults, teachers and parents have a duty to ensure that their children, or pupils, are not engaging in criminal activity, and this is no different in the cyber world.

However, the problem we encounter here is the massive gulf between adults and children when it comes to understanding technology. An Ofcom survey released in August last year found that younger people have a far more advanced understanding of technology than adults – with 6 year olds having the same level of knowledge as the average 45 year old. 

In fact, teenagers aged between 14-19 years old are the most digitally confident in the UK. Interfacing with devices such as mobile phones already seems like second nature for children, when it can take days for adults to simply grasp the concept of a touch screen!

If teachers and parents are to monitor and guide young people's use of technology and make sure they're not becoming involved in cyber-crime, they must first be able to understand the technology themselves.

Secondly, we must consider the types of devices and technology that young people are using and put appropriate security measures in place to limit the possibility of malicious use. Technology like the Windows To Go USB Flash Drive would give young coders a replica desktop, just like the one they have at school, that they can take home and use on any device, without affecting or accessing the data and operating system sitting on that device. With a Windows To Go device, it's very easy to manage activity. The school can control the transfer of information and remotely wipe, delete, or monitor actions on the device. This way, the youngsters can hone their coding skills without being able to get in trouble by conducting activities outside the school's remit.

By ensuring children recognise the wider context in which coding and hacking can be applied, we can enable children to understand that while hacking skills can be constructive and beneficial for future employment, used in the wrong way, they can often result in serious implications.

One of the underlying themes at this year's RSA Conference was focused on children and their security online, with a Cyber Village targeted at children and focussed on the dangers of the Internet. The conference encouraged visitors to openly discuss the threats to children and get an introduction to  programmes such as HacKid, a hands-on conference for kids teaching them about technology, gaming, mathematics, safety, privacy, networking, security and engineering. And there was Hacker HighSchool, which uses hacking to teach teens problem-solving skills as well as how to protect themselves from threats online.

What is clear is that we must not discourage children from being taught these IT skills – they are absolutely essential for future employment and also play an important role in their everyday socialising with their peers. We must also accept that we cannot stop this evolution because children are already learning these skills, with or without our knowledge and input, so the best we can do is help shape that knowledge and guide them on a path that helps them do good and not bad.

Teaching hacking in a controlled environment under the guidance of a qualified teacher is ultimately better than a child teaching themselves online and exploring the "precarious" side of such skills, to later use them in an unethical manner.

Contributed by Nick Banks, VP EMEA and APAC, IronKey by Imation