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Ira Winkler: Facebook is giving hacking a good name again

Its Hacker Cup celebrates creative computer talent instead of rewarding the destroyers

By Ira Winkler
January 10, 2012 11:22 AM ET

Computerworld - Whenever I see another "cyberchallenge" getting play in the press, I think our priorities are screwed up.

People seem to think that organizing teams of people to hack into systems is a way to bring together the best computer talent to square off against each other. I look at it as a waste of that talent. Maybe the press wouldn't be as interested, but I believe we all would be better served by competitions over who can better secure a nonprofit organization, who can develop a better fundraising database or who can teach underprivileged children math or programming better. Cyberchallenges are about who can destroy things most effectively. Doesn't it make sense to challenge young hackers to create something that can provide true value?

That's why I was excited to read about Facebook's latest Hacker Cup. This contest has become one of the few tests of creative computer talent. To quote the IDG News Service's report on the Hacker Cup: "The contest consists of successive sets of increasingly difficult algorithmic problems. Scoring will be based on how accurately and quickly the programmers complete the puzzles. Last year's contest featured challenges such as determining the optimum number of shield generators and warriors one should acquire for the Facebook game Starcraft II and calculating the best race car driving strategy given a variable number of opponents, race track curves and likelihood of crashing."

In other words, it's all about being creative, not destructive. Unfortunately, we often seem to highlight the people who destroy more than those who create.

For example, the National Security Agency is awarding scholarships based on cyberchallenges. This is muddied thinking. The NSA would get far more benefit if it awarded scholarships based on good, creative programming. By rewarding the forces of destruction, the NSA is sending a message. Is it one we want to send to the nation's young hackers?

Meanwhile, the media effectively lionize groups like Anonymous by breathlessly reporting on their latest hacks. But these hacks are really little more than random attacks that take advantage of vulnerabilities. The better story is admittedly much harder to cover, involving the IT staffs at hundreds of companies who create secure architectures and who, though subjected to hundreds, if not thousands, of attacks a day, repel them successfully.

For example, we don't hear about the talent it took to create our telecommunications infrastructure. We take for granted how seamless our communications have become. At this point, the Star Trek communicator seems outdated. Not only can we talk to people by saying their name, but we can also use our phones to text, download videos, run applications and buy a frappuccino from Starbuck's.

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