Hacking for charity: How one former hacker is getting techies lending a hand in Africa

j0hnnyhax didn't know much about Uganda, but he knew about hackers...
Written by Hilary Heuler, Contributor

Over the course of a 15-year career as a security professional, Johnny Long - aka j0hnnyhax - led a team breaking into the systems (and occasionally the buildings) of major firms and US government agencies to identify their security holes.

Long has written and contributed to over a dozen books on security, and is still a regular speaker on the security conference circuit.  But one thing he never imagined himself doing, he says, was using his IT skills to help charities save lives.

"That was stuff that doctors do. It wasn't stuff that computer people do," he says.  "I'm a high-tech guy, I hardly have any other skills. I'm just not the type that you would think of going to Africa and doing anything."

But in 2009, inspired by a trip his wife had taken, Long moved with her and his three children to the East African country of Uganda, hoping to find a way to use his tech skills to help the disadvantaged children and communities he'd seen in photographs. He wasn't sure how to go about it, and at the time he didn't know much at all about Africa.

But he did know a lot about hackers.

"I knew that they weren't criminals," he says.  "I knew that they got a bad rap from a few people that were committing crimes with their name. I saw these people doing good things. But I realised there was no charity that was technology-based that was for them."

Putting hackers' skills to work

The result was Hackers for Charity, an organisation Long founded in the town of Jinja, just east of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. It harnesses the skills of hackers around the world to provide free technical support to cash-strapped local charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Such support tends to involve operations like banding to improve connectivity, using forensic software to recover lost data, installing nComputing systems, or even just building a website. Simple measures like this, Long says, can helping life-saving NGOs find donors, keep records and communicate with the world outside Uganda.

"We have Skype board meetings and things like that over the internet, and lot of our communication with donors is done over the internet," says Renee Bach, whose Jinja-based NGO treats severely malnourished children and teaches mothers about nutrition. Plus, she says, "most of our staff have no computer skills at all, and they've been asking to learn".

Hackers for Charity uses foreign volunteers to set up and maintain systems like Bach's. Often these systems don't consist of much more than a few computers and an internet connection; most of Long's beneficiaries can't afford to budget for IT, but even basic equipment can be difficult to service in Uganda. He and his volunteers also run personalised computer training sessions for NGO staff, teaching them how to use everything from email to the specialised software needed for their jobs.

But beyond providing an on-the-ground volunteer opportunity in Uganda, the organisation also allows hackers to use their skills to help NGOs around the world, without ever having to leave home. Through on online network, potential volunteers can connect with organisations that need websites built or secured, and lend a hand remotely.

Some of Long's volunteers, who have numbered in the thousands, are the sorts of teenage programming whizzkids that movies tend to associate with the word "hacker". Others are working in fields too sensitive to allow them to reveal their identities – for these, Long provides anonymity.

Using technology in unexpected ways

But far from being anarchic digital rebels, most volunteers hold conventional day jobs in the IT sector. For many, security is merely a hobby. The classic definition of a hacker is "someone that uses technology in unexpected ways," says Long, although these days it tends to mean anyone with an interest in cybersecurity.

One example is Tim Rosenberg, whose job involves setting up online classrooms for teaching computer security, including large-scale network attack and defence exercises. He has volunteered twice with Hackers of Charity, although he admits that his days as a young technology renegade are long behind him.  "All I'm going to say that is my first computer was in 1982, an Atari 800. I'll just leave it at that," he laughs.

Long himself embraces the word "hacker" – the organisation's tongue-in-cheek tagline is 'I hack charities' - but unfortunately, he says, the stigma surrounding the term has had an impact on their work.

"Most organisations see that word – which we won't remove from our name, because it's who we are – and that's it. End of discussion. Organisations that would normally donate to us won't donate because they're fearing a news story," he says. But, he adds, "a lot of fledgling security companies within our community have done just that, because they're like, 'this is who we are too'."

Rosenberg brushes off the suggestion that people like him could be perceived as dangerous.  "The website makes it pretty clear that this isn't a group of malicious people doing bad things," he says. "This isn't Robin Hood, we're not trying to steal from the rich and give to the poor."

Changing perceptions

One of Long's goals is to change the public perception of hackers, one volunteer at a time.  "I want people to realise that, if anything, hackers are geeky and ridiculously smart and a bit shy and socially awkward," he says. "A tiny, miniscule percentage of our community is criminal."

On the other hand, he confesses that that tiny percentage could pose a threat to Hackers for Charity as well and he has to be careful in screening his volunteers.

"If you have somebody that has bad motives, and they just want to put a back door into a client's website instead of fixing it, that becomes sticky," Long says. As a rule, he tries to work with people who already belong to an established hacker community.

But for the vast majority of hackers whose intentions are good, says Rosenberg, Long's organisation provides them with a much-needed conduit to the outside world.

"We're not known for our social skills. We're known for spending hours and days and months in windowless offices interfacing on laptops and computers, and not really moving outside of that bubble," he says.  "An organisation like Hackers for Charity, which provides the ability to start impacting the wider community and the world, is just a phenomenal opportunity."

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