(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Just yesterday, Junior announced proudly “I want to be a hacker when I grow up”. Should I send him to a counselor?

Not at all. As a matter of fact, you should encourage your children to become hackers. Regardless of what mainstream media keep saying, being a “hacker” is not a bad thing.

It is true that mainstream media routinely use the term “hacker” to describe software-based criminals, those who break into somebody else’s computer to steal private data or simply damage any file or service they can reach. No matter how common this usage is, it is still wrong: it seems created just to strengthen the perception that only people with some official authorization or assignment can study or modify software.

The correct definition for a software-based criminal who damages computer systems or steals their data has always been “cracker”. A hacker, instead, is somebody who knows how to look under the hood of a computer and likes to do it, but only to make the hardware or software run faster, or do something that, even if it’s just one extra software function, was impossible before.

This is not a secret. Actually, it’s one of the oldest computer slang terms around, widely accepted and clearly documented for more than twenty years. Finding software-based criminals labeled as hackers in a magazine is one of the easiest proofs you can find that its articles (at least those covering Information and Communication technology or ICT) are written without any serious knowledge of the matter. You’d better complain with the editor, or simply shop for a more professional magazine.

The basic traits of a hacker, besides being a good guy, are activity and the desire to learn how things work, to improve them or create better ones. Nothing to do with playing videogames for hours, or doing something so uselessly stupid as illegally downloading music, movies or software. Being a hacker is a cool pastime for a teenager, and it may very well turn up to be one of his or her wiser career-preparation moves.

Hacking is not limited to software. A good example of hacking everything, and a great resource too, is the Make Magazine, which has been defined by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the kind of magazine that would impress MacGyver”. Make Magazine proposes and explains projects on anything from high speed photography to backyard biology, and everybody can contribute!

Hacking is good and is an excellent exercise for the brain: it’s what enables young people to turn an original dream into a successful and really rewarding job. What hacking is all about is finding solutions that legally and pacifically improve or change the state of things. Maybe this is the reason why the confusion between hackers and criminals is encouraged or tolerated in mainstream media. All children should be hackers. Let’s make sure that misguided laws don’t prevent this from happening.