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Decoding the ethics of an internet education

By Kristina Macaulay - Posted on 28 March 2013

Kristina Macaulay, Strathclyde MBA alumnus and Managing Director of data security and organisational authentication consultancy, Global Identity, discusses the issues facing children tempted by hacking when learning basic computer coding…

What are the ethics behind hacking for children and how do we teach children morals, in an environment that parents are often absent from? I advocate that to build you must know how to destroy. Demolition experts know how to handle explosives but more importantly they know how a building is structured to enable a safe, secure and planned take down. The same principle applies to hacking — by understanding the wider context around what is being hacked we can enable children to understand the practice is both inappropriate and dangerous.

The ability to communicate does not stop an eight year old using bad language and it’s understandable that when children learn basic computer coding, as is becoming more common in our schools, they will push boundaries to explore. By nature humans look to challenge what they know, while the educational system actively encourages this natural quest for greater knowledge.

As a mother of four, I am amazed how many times I have to remind my eldest to set an example to the younger ones. I’ve been parenting for 11 years and if it takes that long to build enough common sense in my eldest, then how are we going to teach children to take an ethical approach to computer programming when parents are often not present and where young teens are beginning to take the lead.

A recent report from anti-virus company, AVG, suggests that children are becoming increasingly involved in hacking. In one case an 11 year old boy in Canada was found to have created a ‘cheat programme’ for the online game ‘Runescape’, which has more than 200 million players. The programme was designed to harvest log-in details but was riddled with errors which allowed the authorities to trace the boy to his home town. While the case may seem inconsequential the child was involved in a form of theft and with fundamental skills already in place the worry is that without guidance the potential exists for children to develop more advanced skills which could have far more serious consequences. There will always be demand for ethical hackers – people that use the same methods as hackers to make systems safer – but the emphasis has to be placed on legal rather than illegal activity.

The Scottish Government is currently leading a ‘Digital Dialogue’ which is exploring the value of ethical digital leaders — however with the next generation growing up in an environment with different ethics and morals we may need to revisit some of the current leadership roles and whether they fit with current leadership trends.

The question remains: who is responsible? Is it enough to raise awareness about the dangers of hacking during a class lesson, regarding an environment that does not have the same ethical standards or culture as the educational system? Perhaps it's time to re-think when leadership training begins, and develop clear ethical guidance for children learning how to programme computers.

What do you think about children learning computer coding? Is enough being done to instil a sense of right and wrong with young people developing IT skills? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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