Oh, dear: it’s happened again. Ill-informed law enforcement folks are demonising people for getting interested in security. As The Register reports, West Midlands police in the UK have put out a poster aimed at teachers, parents and guardians which advises them to get in touch if they find any of the following on a child’s computer:
- Tor browser
- Virtual machines
- Kali Linux
- Wifi Pineapple
“If you see any of these on their computer, or have a child you think is hacking, please let us know so we can give advice and engage them into positive diversions.”
Leaving aside the grammar of that sentence, let’s have a look at those tools. Actually, first, let’s address the use of the word “hacking”. It’s not the first time that I’ve had a go at misuse of this word, but on the whole, I think that we’ve lost the battle in popular media to allow us to keep the positive use of the term. In this context, however, if I ask a teenager or young person who’s in possession of a few of the above if they’re hacking, they answer will probably be “yes”, which is good. And not because they’re doing dodgy stuff – cracking – but because they’re got into the culture of a community where hacking is still a positive word: it means trying stuff out, messing around and coding. This is a world I – and the vast majority of my colleagues – inhabit and work in on a day-to-day basis.
So – those tools. Tor, as they point out, can be used to access the dark web. More likely, it’s being used by a savvy teenager to hide their access to embarrassing material. VMs can apparently be used to hide OSes such as Kali Linux. Well, yes, but “hide”? And there is a huge number of other, positive and creative uses to which VMs are put every day.
Oh, and Kali Linux is an OS “often used for hacking”. Let’s pull that statement apart. It could mean:
- many uses of Kali Linux are for illegal or unethical activities;
- many illegal or unethical activities use Kali Linux.
In the same way that you might say “knives are often used for violent attacks”, such phrasing is downright misleading, because you know (and any well-informed law-enforcement officer should know) that 2 is more true than 1.
Next is Wifi Pineapple: this is maybe a little more borderline. Although there are legitimate uses for one of these, I can see that they might raise some eyebrows if you starting going around your local area with one.
Metasploit: well, it’s the tool to get to know if you want to get involved in security. There are so many things you can do with it – like Kali Linux – that are positive, including improving your own security, learning how to protect your systems and adopting good coding practice. If I wanted to get an interested party knowledgeable about how computers really work, how security is so often poor, and how to design better, more secure systems, Metasploit would be the tool I’d point them at.
You may have noticed that I left one out: Discord. Dear, oh dear, oh dear. Discord is, first and foremost, a free gaming chat server. If a child is using Discord, they’re probably playing – wait for it – a computer game.
This poster isn’t just depressing – it’s short-sighted, and misleading. It’s going to get children mislabelled and put upon by people who don’t know better, and assume that information put out by their local police service will be helpful and straightforward. It’s all very well for West Midlands police to state that “[t]he software mentioned is legal and, in the vast majority of cases is used legitimately, giving great benefit to those interested in developing their digital skills”, and that they’re trying to encourage those with parental responsibility to “start up a conversation”, but this is just crass.
I have two children, both around teenage age. I can tell you know that any conversation starting with “what’s that on your computer? It’s a hacking tool! Are you involved in something you shouldn’t be?” is not going to end well, and it’s not going to end well for a number of reasons, including:
- it makes me look like an idiot, particularly if what I’m reacting to is something completely innocuous like Discord;
- you’re not treating the young person with any level of respect;
- it’s a negative starting point of engagement, which means that they’ll go into combative, denial mode;
- it will make them feel that I suspect them of something, leading them to be more secretive from now on.
And, do you know what? I don’t blame them: if someone said something like that to me, that would be precisely my reaction, too. What’s the alternative suggested in the poster? Oh, yes: contact the police. That’s going to go well: “I saw this on your computer, and I got in touch with the police, and they suggested I have chat with you…” Young people love that sort of conversation, too. Oh, and exactly how sure are you that the police haven’t taken the details of the child and put them on a list somewhere? Yes, I’m exactly that sure, as well.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there are tools out there that are dangerous and can be misused, and some of them will be. By teenagers, children and young adults. People of this age aren’t always good at making choices, and they’re sensitive to peer pressure, and they will make mistakes. But this is not the way to go about addressing this. We need to build trust, treat young people with respect, discuss choices, while encouraging careful research and learning. Hacking – the good type – can lead to great opportunities.
Alternatively, we can start constraining these budding security professionals early, and stop them in their tracks by refusing to let them use the Internet. Or phone. Or computers. Or read books. Actually, let’s start there. Let’s just not teach children to read: we’ll definitely be safe then (and there’s no way they’ll teach themselves, resent our control and turn against us: oh, no).