October 04, 2008

A hack and a message

Hacking at MIT is one of MIT's strongest selling points. MIT proudly talks about all the creative hacks and pranks that students pull off, but what a lot of people don't realize is that MIT, while loving hacks, hates hackers. It doesn't quite seem fair that MIT is willing to hand hackers that its caught over to the Cambridge Police and file charges against them, especially when they love the hacks so much.

Chancellor Clay sent out an e-mail the other day to the entire student body, discussing hacking and proclaiming that the current state of hacking doesn't conform to current societal standards.

Several days later was a response. The first half was an opinion article in The Tech (MIT's newspaper) written by one of MIT's dorms' presidents, Vinayak Ranade.

With President Hockfield’s ‘State of the Institute’ just passed, I felt that it would be appropriate to address the state of the Institute hacker, who is after all, a member of MIT belonging to myriad macro and micro communities.

As the president of East Campus, I often have to deal with the popular misconception at MIT equating hacking with the dorm. While hackers are not exclusive to EC, some hackers do reside within the dorm, and it is my duty to represent them as best I can.

The Institute hacker, like you and me, is just another hosed MIT student. He wants to graduate on time, needs to pull an all-nighter for that extra-long p-set, and is worried that airfares are going up and that he might not be able to make it home for Christmas. Sometimes he thinks about just partying the entire weekend. Tonight, however, he wants to do something more exciting, something that makes him feel alive — something he can only do at a place like MIT.

He starts off his night by grabbing a couple of like-minded people; he knows that one should never hack alone. The group sets off for a grand night, thrilled with the prospect of being the next generation of “those brilliant MIT hackers” that mystify everyone.

Soon enough, the Institute hacker finds himself at a door which he is not supposed to get through. He’s really curious to know what’s on the other side. For the Institute hacker this is not something new, and a few minutes later he is on the other side of the door.

It turns out to be just a janitor’s closet, and the Institute hacker knocks over a pail of dirty water walking in. Remembering the code of ethics he was taught his freshman year, he quickly cleans up the mess, and leaves the place just as he found it, perhaps even better.

He takes extra care to make sure that the door is locked on his way out, because he doesn’t want some bum who’s wandering MIT’s open campus to come and spend the night in or steal anything from the unlocked janitor’s closet that he found. The last thing he wants is for hackers to be blamed for someone else’s mistakes.

The night eventually leads the Institute hacker to a roof. He really enjoys the cool breeze and the Boston skyline as it stares back at him. He feels fortunate and proud to be one of the few people who can get to this particular roof. Suddenly, he hears the roof door click.

His first instinct is to remain as calm as possible. Safety safety safety, he remembers an upperclassman drilling into him during his freshman year. Within moments, there is a gruff looking Campus Police officer shining his light on the Institute hacker, rumbling “Hey you. Come over here.”

The Institute hacker knows that he’s been caught. Not so long ago, he would have immediately obeyed and walked over to the officer on duty, and cooperated fully. But tonight, he isn’t so sure. He’s read the letter from the Chancellor earlier in the night. He’s heard of his friends being treated like common criminals.

He’s read about the police brutality accusations in The Tech. He doesn’t trust the officer to know what the hacking code of ethics is, and he is terrified at the prospect of being thrown to the Cambridge Police by some MIT authority who doesn’t really understand hacking. He remembers hearing about a friend’s belongings getting confiscated for weeks by the Campus Police. He remembers a friend who had to face lengthy criminal court proceedings and defaming articles in newspapers.

The Institute hacker’s mind is filled with doubts. Maybe he should have just agreed to go and get drunk with his other buddies instead of trying to carry on some MIT “tradition.” Was it even a tradition anymore, or just a game of cat and mouse? He wonders.

There is a lack of appreciation for the amount of effort that hackers put into pulling off ridiculous feats. Tours led by hackers convince many prefrosh to choose MIT, because they know that this experience wouldn’t be possible at Harvard or Yale. I didn’t hear a single administrator complain when hackers committed grand theft for the Caltech cannon hack, but they all changed their tune the moment students got caught on MIT’s own campus.

I walk into the Stata Center for classes and see the exhibits commemorating old hacks, but the hackers that I know don’t feel commemorated. They feel like MIT is on track to becoming like any other university. They are tired of the administrators changing their stance on hacking all the time, depending on external pressures and internal politics.

They never know what to expect if a Campus Police officer stops them, even if they’re just walking down the Infinite. They don’t feel like staying calm and stepping up to the officer on duty. They want to deal with neither the policies nor the changing whims of police officers and administrators. They just want to explore interesting places, understand exactly how that machine room works, and pull off some spectacular engineering.

If they want to make a statement, they usually do it in style. But these days, the state of the Institute hacker is such that he is afraid of making a statement; he doesn’t know whether getting caught means community service, going to the Committee on Discipline, going to trial in a Cambridge court, or having to explain his actions to prospective grad schools.

Every student has a message in their inbox today telling them that, “Those who violate the tradition, by endangering themselves or others, by breaking the law, or departing from the ‘hacking code of conduct’ cannot seek protection from responsibility.” This sounds like the administration wants hackers to keep doing all the things which help MIT’s image, but if hackers get caught doing these things, they’ll be mercilessly prosecuted.

Why does MIT put on display all the hacking memorabilia when they would prosecute anyone in the act of putting together those very hacks? Since when do administrators know more about the hacking code of ethics than the hackers who wrote it? Since when does hacking get thrown into the same category as academic integrity and hazing? How can a hacker follow the hacking code of conduct without hacking?

The Institute hacker on the roof is still debating whether to step up to the officer on duty. The state of the Institute hacker is confused, nervous, and insulted.

That same day a hack was pulled, paralleling the sentiment expressed in the article. The Hack Gallery in Stata was altered to reflect what MIT hackers thought about Chancellor Clay's e-mail and the Institute's current stance on hacking.

Hacks on display were covered in black cloth, caution taped, and had violation notices posted on them.

How will the Institute respond? Chancellor Clay, after having the Tech article to him, replied by saying that he was "open to suggestions." Maybe things will get better again.

Photographs used with permission, courtesy of Eric Schmiedl since my camera was in my dorm


Ehsan said...

Let's all face it hacking is a crime in the real world, whatever your excuse may be.
Is MIT training master criminals? Or teaching hard workers that its ok to have fun?
MIT hacks definetly reel people in. Like it did to you, Snively. But I'm pretty sure every hacker plans extensively instead wandering the halls (and roof in this case) looking for a hack. Getting caught would probably mean time in jail and expulsion from MIT. A death sentence!

Alex said...

I'm sorry Ehsan but if there's something MIT takes pride in it's. They even talk about them in Fall Meetings!!! Obviously if you get caught the hack is busted. But MIT should be more flexible with hackers because without hacks MIT would be Harvard! Plus, it's not like they're hurting anyone or anything.

Hacker Forums said...

MIT is training their students to use their minds. Not all hackers are doing illegal things out there, some are just interested in the field and use the school as a means to test their knowledge. I have a lab that I do my testing in, some people just need a "fix" or a "rush" and go out hacking websites and bank accounts.

Hacker Forums

Ahana Datta said...

One of the reasons I love MIT is the hacks. Why use your intelligence just as "the future of this country?" Word hard, play hard, and MIT sure knows how to.
PS: Vinayak Ranade is my hero!

Michael said...

@Hacker Forums
Just to clarify, "hacking" at MIT is not about "computer hacking." A hack is actually an intricate and well-planned prank/feat of engineering pulled on the school. Anything from cars on domes to turning buildings into R2D2, and more. hacks.mit.edu is a good place to go to read more.

Ehsan said...

Oh Snively,
If I had a nickel everytime you directed somebody to that site!

SPIRITed! said...

I love the way Vinayak Ranade put his ideas into paper and I completely agree with what he says. Its Massachusetts Institute Of TECHNOLOGY, for god's sake. If you're not supposed to use your brains here for pulling off mind boggling engineering feats, then where are you supposed to do it?

Charlemagne said...

supporting hacks and hacking are unfortunately two different entities in the administrations mind, despite their obvious ties (I mean come on, fish go with fishing.....)

I suspect it has to be that way to keep kids safe blah blah blah, but I think they could be a little more lenient with hackers who get caught. It's not exactly like it's unheard of, and there is definitely a huge double standard there. They support the ends but not the means.

guess hackers will just have to be sneakier =)

somebody said...