Good Hackers Fight Off Labels -- The Disruptors

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- While the word "hacker" may bring to mind black clothes-and-sunglass-wearing super geniuses breaking into computer systems, it's a far cry from the scene last Saturday, when 150 programmers gathered in New York City's Flatiron district to spend the weekend hacking software programs to build new applications and games.

But in this case, hacking isn't a word to describe cyber-attacks against Sony ( SNE), Nintendo and the U.S. government, but rather a way of solving a problem creatively using technical prowess.

Fueled by Amp Energy drink, mounds of Cheetos and virtually no sleep, this group of hackers is part of Game Hack Day, an event held at General Assembly, a co-working space that hosts programming and support services for start-ups.

The day's goal: to spend the next 24 hours creating an innovative game built off the platform of other New York-based companies. Some of the programs that ended up winning include World of Fourcraft, a Risk-style game developed off Foursquare's mobile check in service, and Twetris, a mash-up of Tetris and Twitter.

"I like computers and the community here is really positive," said Kathy Sun, an engineering student at Columbia University and participant at the hackathon who considers herself a "fledgling" hacker. "Instead of grumbling about how things are, we say, 'this sucks, let's go make something better and fix it.'"

While companies like Facebook and Yahoo! ( YHOO) have held these so-called hackathons for external developers over the past several years, the trend has only recently caught on outside of Silicon Valley, thanks in large part to the burgeoning New York tech scene.

HackNY, an organization co-founded by faculty from New York and Columbia Universities, hosts coding events for young hackers, as do other area start-ups like Foursquare and Gilt Groupe. NYHacker, a non-profit supporting New York's hacker culture, also sponsors hackathons, including Game Hack Day.

Extreme Programming

Game Hack Day was organized by John Britton, a 25-year old developer who first started building Web pages in 6th grade. In college, he ditched his plan of becoming a nuclear engineer and computer scientist, instead choosing to travel around China and Spain to learn different languages and customs. He then worked for several start-ups before being hired by Twilio, a company that helps power group texting apps.

"A friend of mine called hackathons the 'extreme sport of programming,' which is a term I really like," he said. "The events give hackers a good name and show outsiders the type of cool stuff that can be created in a really short time."

Aside from building innovative programs, hackathons also let developers network with one another, find business partners and build new companies.

Group messaging start-up GroupMe was formed at last year's TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon. Since then, the company has been named a darling of the New York tech scene, raising over $10 million in funding and hiring around 18 employees.

"The hackathons are a very collaborative community, and it's fun being creative to solve technological challenges with other people and to show off what you've built," said Chris Wiggins, an associate professor in applied physics and applied mathematics at Columbia, and one of the co-founders of HackNY.

Darker Counterparts

The programmers at these productive hackathons stand in sharp contrast to their "black hat" counterparts grabbing headlines today -- groups like Lulz Security and Anonymous who claim responsibility for breaking into computers for fun, often stealing data like credit card information and passwords.

But despite the different motivations between the two camps, similarities are inevitable.

For one, both sets of hackers bend the rules in a clever fashion so that computers behave the way they want them to, not how they're intended to be used.

"Anyone that does hacking doesn't like arbitrary rules that companies put in place and want to take things into their own hands," said Nate Kidwell, president of software development firm Ludicast. "Many companies don't appreciate this type of reverse engineering because competitors could know how they built their products."

Microsoft ( MSFT), for example, initially condemned hackers for modifying its wildly successful Kinect product, turning the device into everything from a virtual light saber to a playable guitar. The company has since shifted its stance, releasing a software development kit this month to allow outside developers to freely create programs that interact with the Xbox-based motion controlled device.

"There's a relationship between the same type of curiosity and technical skill to create an air guitar that can lead some to break into a bank," said Hilary Mason, the lead scientist at URL redirection service bit.ly and a member of NYC Resistor, an electronics hacking collective in Brooklyn. "The difference is between moral choices."

While "good" hackers are driven by intellectual curiosity and creativity, their counterparts are motivated by notoriety and thrill-seeking, said Dr. Marcus Rogers, a professor at Purdue University who specializes in cyber forensics and cyber terrorism.

" Bad hackers don't understand the consequences of their actions and don't care," he said. "There's a sense of entitlement and they don't think anyone's ever going to catch them because they're smarter than everyone else."

Some worry that black hats have spoiled the fun for everyone, giving the entire of community of hackers a bad name.

"The brand 'hacker' has been soiled and so has the reputation of that particular name," said Jonathan Penn, an analyst at Forrester. "Especially as these groups hide behind anonymity, it further paints them as transgressors and taints the community of good hackers."

Bit.ly's Mason, for one, recalls a recent Amtrak train trip she took in which a passenger seated nearby called the conductor over after viewing Mason's screen, which was filled with code she had written for a work-related project.

"It was as if they were making sure I wasn't doing something dangerous," she said. "I'm worried that all of the publicity Lulz Security and Anonymous are getting is creating this culture where people are becoming afraid of technical skill."

Others are less concerned.

"Within the tech community, people understand the distinction between the two groups -- there's no impact," said David Cohen, CEO of start-up incubator TechStars, which recently launched a HackStars program for developers. "We encourage our hackers to be really innovative and creative so they can save lives or create something that matters."

--Written by Olivia Oran in New York.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/Ozoran.

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