The rise of the philanthropic hacker


At first glance, the term “Hackers for Charity” sounds like an oxymoron along the lines of Death Metal Rockers for Bel Canto Opera or Legislators for Public Accountability.

But after decades of inhabiting the darkness, more and more hackers are turning towards the light, offering skill sets both to wealth-generating business/government organizations and non-profit charitable purposes as well.

The evolution of the Black Hat and Defcon shows from semi-outlaw gatherings to annual Las Vegas extravaganzas is a case in point. Almost everyone attending these conferences now has a business card—a significant progress indicator in itself--identifying them as members in good standing at a legally and socially legitimate organisation.

The sessions themselves focus on how to defeat unwanted attacks on infrastructure, not how to make them happen. Of course, successful white hat hacking requires the ability to view the world as black hats do, but the same holds true for fighting sin. You have to understand it, or even experience it, before you can confront it successfully.

It is also true that hackers, like everyone, are steadily getting older. They eventually discover the responsibilities that come along with life experience and seek ways to exchange their expertise for monetary compensation without the downside risks of prosecution or spending a lot of time explaining things to tax authorities. In the long run, going straight makes both economic sense and for a more stable life.

Lately, however, a third way has emerged for hackers to deploy their expertise in the service of goodness. Exemplified by Johnny Long’s Hackers for Charity effort, this breed of hacker opts out of the corporate or public sector rat race and deploys their skills to advance humanitarian causes.

In Johnny’s case, he has moved with his family to Uganda, where he pursues a multifaceted portfolio of good works. Activities include fundraising to endow schools and educational programs, emergency food distribution, and extending technical expertise to non-governmental organizations seeking more effective use of technology and to establish robust Internet presences.

One thing Johnny has discovered is how seemingly trivial uses of his expertise can make huge differences to his clients. For example, he helped an adoption agency set up a workgroup LAN to share data.

This would have been a routine deployment action as early as 1988, much less 2009. But instead of passing diskettes around the adoption agency, the organization can now speedily move adoption process data around the office. As a result, the agency has doubled the number of adoptions it can process in a year.

We all often talk about technology boosting productivity in the abstract, but it really hits home when you learn that a simple workgroup LAN project can open the doors of hope and a better life for twice as many children as before.

I really admire Johnny, but am not in a position to pack my bags to join him. Instead, I convinced the company I work for to support a donation matching funds programme that would double up $5,000 in contributions Johnny raised independently into a maximum $10,000 addition to the Hackers for Charity program fund. The good news is that Johnny “made quota” and we are contributing $5,000 to match the money he raised.

What can you do to help Hackers for Charity, not to mention the people and programs it supports? First, you can make your own donation via the Hackers for Charity website via one of the “ChipIn!” menus on the home page.

For extra mileage, investigate if your company has an employee charitable contributions matching program. Not every company does this, but if they do, you can typically double the amount of money you contribute to Hackers for Charity or other causes of your choice.

Slowly but surely, hackers are cleaning up their act. They are well on their way to transforming their image from basement outlaws to the noble nights of cyber space. Johnny Long is among those leading the way.

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