Defense of the dark arts for computer science
September 28, 2007 3:07 PM
This generation of computer science majors is being taught the dark arts of hacking and virus writing, under the premise: to win one must know thine enemy well.
Universities throughout the digital world are wrangling with the idea of offering classes in computer hacking; which could render artificial intelligence devices that will change the world at best, or unleash the next generation of catastrophic internet viruses, at worst.
Classes like, “Ethical Hacking and Network Defense,” offered at CCSF, introduce an ethical issue as an educator, but make a very interesting and controversial point, according to Okada. “To protect from the enemy, you must learn about the enemy,” said Okada, of the theory behind offering such courses.
SF State Computer Science Professor Kaz Okada said that the computer programming skills needed to write a virus or hack into complex network security systems are very simple, and not that different from the in-class experiments that he uses to teach his students about artificial intelligence.
The Community College of San Francisco is one, amongst universities in Canada, Scotland and the United Kingdom that are offering classes in computer hacking.
Since network security design requires the same knowledge base as hacking, and Okada believes that it is his, and every educator’s, responsibility to control what is practiced in the classroom. He treats the subject with sensitivity.
In class, Okada might say that a certain type of software program can be used for network security, but refrain from saying how it can be used to create a virus.
Okada said that the faculty has a distinct responsibility to educate, but cannot guarantee the benevolence of student created programming. “We’re not here to facilitate the activity that is creating havoc outside.”
Though Okada believes that “computer science students don’t hack,” he says that there should be a standard, beyond the current case-by-case process, dictating how certain programming skills should be taught in the classroom.
Whether our universities are effective at teaching students to be the vaccine and not the virus is not the issue, according to Okada. Our weakness is in our reliance on the Internet, which is “open to the whole spectrum of people, from the great idea thinker to the criminal,” said Okada.
“It’s a conundrum,” he said.
Okada uses worm programs to teach students about artificial intelligence, which is a
Okada said that worms have internal DNA that allows them to mutate and evolve with every generation, becoming more sophisticated and difficult to stop.
One common virus that is designed along the same basic principles is the “denial of service” attack, according to Okada. The virus is designed to (1) locate computers with poor security firewalls, also known as “zombies,” (2) access email lists within the zombie, and (3) send 10,000 emails per second to a large internet based company such as Microsoft, from every email address it acquires.
Such a barrage can cause server crashes, after which all email inquiries will receive a “denial of service” email, effectively stopping all transactions within the company website.
As the Internet becomes a more volatile and vital medium for communication, the temptation is to control virus outbreaks by limiting the free flow of information from teacher to student, according to Okada.
This could be unconstitutional and would abandon the idea of using ethics classes to instill students with good morals.
If universities teach the dark arts, for the sake of eradicating viruses and stopping hackers, then students must be trusted to make morally good decisions as to how they will use their knowledge in the real world.
Articles in Wired Magazine, the New York Times and the Washington Post have covered the issue of teaching hacking in universities, but the dialogue is still in its formative stages.
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