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Protecting the internet's purpose

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ANN HERMES/STAFF

(Read caption) VISITORS TRIED THE ‘HACKING STATIONS’ AT R00TZ ASYLUM, A PROGRAM FOR KIDS AT THE DEF CON 24 CONVENTION IN LAS VEGAS.

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Feeling out of sorts after the long and sometimes tawdry slog of the American presidential campaign? Dismayed by the tone of the media and pop culture? Then a recent cover story is for you. It’s for anybody who might have slipped into a what’s-the-world-coming-to rut. Sara Sorcher introduces us to a fascinating group of young people who have become the “white hats” of computer hacking (click here).

This is gratifying on many levels. First, we’re glimpsing the future. Its inhabitants seem whip-smart and ethical. That’s worth a fist pump and a big “yeeesss!” Also, while many of us of a certain age enjoy, use, and occasionally yell at the internet, we still consider it somewhat optional. We debate its pros and cons, remember life without it, and figure we could do without it if we had to (a mistaken notion perhaps, but persistent). To digital natives, the internet is a given.

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“There was a time when people felt the internet was another world,” noted Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, “but now people realize it’s a tool that we use in this world.”

It’s helpful to think of the internet as earlier generations thought of automobiles and airplanes. In the first half of the 20th century, those were exciting if iffy technologies – unregulated, unreliable, and unsafe. Breakdowns were common, accidents frequent. By midcentury, highway and air travel had gone from interesting to popular to essential. Year after year, users demanded, and business and government provided, better quality and safety.

Digital technology is on a similar curve. In the early days, dial-up connections were poky, “blue screen of death” freeze-ups were frequent, and “404 not found” errors were around every corner. As early problems were overcome, new ones cropped up. Security is the persistent one. No matter how strong the network is, each user is a potential point of vulnerability, a node that can be conned or spoofed into opening the door. We didn’t used to know not to click on dodgy links, use “password” as a password, or enter personal information on unsecured sites. We know a lot more than that now.

Sara’s wunderkind hackers are determined to make the internet – yours and mine, but really theirs – safer by ferreting out security flaws before bad guys find them. Their work is less controversial than that of Aaron Swartz, the young hacktivist who committed suicide in 2013 while under federal indictment for computer crimes. Mr. Swartz skirted the edges of the law to try to preserve the digital commons.

It is heartening that young hackers are uncovering internet vulnerabilities. It would be even better if, like Swartz, they were to use their talents not just to make the Xbox and Minecraft more secure but to protect the internet’s original purpose: to connect people and ideas, to make all knowledge freely available. 

We are still in the early stages of the internet. It has gone from interesting to essential. Tomorrow’s generations will take it to places undreamed of. They’ll own it, after all.