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Destler Dodge

There are hackers on campus.

You might imagine them as mischievous figures typing away late into the night, lit only by the pasty glow of an intense computer monitor. Or worry about the sanctity of your login information. Hackers really do have a bad rep, don't they?

Historically speaking, the term 'hacker' has been anchored by a negative connotation as depicted in various forms of media. "A hacker was somebody who would illegally enter computer systems," explained RIT computer science professor Phil White. "Some of the original hackers didn't even use technology means, they used just social things," he said.

A New York Times article dated hacking back to the gentleman's hobby of cryptography where "Victorian hackers" would play with codes and ciphers to send cheaper or private messages via electric telegraph. Another piece explained that good hackers of the modern era refer to their malicious counterparts as "'crackers,'" channeling the imagery of a burglar cracking a safe. 

The Guardian published an article that stated, "hackers often describe what they do as playfully creative problem solving."

White elaborated that the act of hacking is really a means of discovering a clever use of a network, whatever that network may be. Before computer systems, hackers would manipulate people into giving up their passwords or even learn how to 'hack' old phone switchboards. It was primarily just a matter of finding a weakness in the system and knowing they could break into it. 

Hacking for Good at RIT

There have been countless endeavors with the intention of redefining the connotations surrounding the term 'hacker' in recent years, from Google's Project Zero to the numerous civic hacking movements referred to as Random Hacks of Kindness. On the university level, it is not uncommon to find "hackathons" or company-sponsored competitions working to enrich students' comprehension and appreciation of the subject. 

Jennifer Hinton, assistant director for the Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity Center (MAGIC) at RIT, explained that in a hackathon "there's a problem, there's a challenge associated with whatever the competition is and the goal of that is to find multiple solutions to a problem." She added, "Sometimes there's a theme associated with it that you're developing apps or solutions that address this particular topic area." 

These events can either be student run or company-sponsored competitions. Those which are not themed leave students to determine their own direction. In the past, RIT has hosted an AT&T sponsored competition as well as the Apple iOS App Challenge, among others. These sorts of events hold their own unique incentives. Often times, either the companies sponsoring or the non-profit organization, Major League Hacking (MLH), will coordinate the donation of software for students to utilize throughout the duration of the event. "The companies sponsoring hackathons provide financial support for organizers and they're mostly doing it to collect resumes," explained CodeRIT co-president and third year computer science student Orens Xhagolli. 

CodeRIT is a student organization comprised of individuals who are passionate and interested in coding. Meetings are Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in Golisano 1435 and more often than not, Friday nights are spent hacking together projects with peers. On occasion, meetings will be dedicated to student or professor speakers discussing some topic that is of interest to the group. Students also attend hackathons together, like the University of Michigan's MHacks 8 just a few weeks ago. 

Kyle Suero, a third year computing security student at RIT and member of CodeRIT, has attended numerous such hackathons. He explained, "It's just like a weekend of learning, immersing yourself in the knowledge of people in the industry and the knowledge of your peers and then coming up with a practical solution."  White added that students come together with the sheer incentive of "putting something together for the fun of it" as opposed to its economic value. He also noted the beneficial networking aspect of such events. 

"The notion of community is really important in these types of events," Hinton said. "They might be an expert in one or two areas and it really takes a multidisciplinary team to achieve the outcome that they're seeking." She added, "I think this opportunity provides a venue to find folks with those other talents."

Student members of CodeRIT hope to harbor a welcoming and diverse community. Presently, the 100-plus active student members represent a mixed bag of majors ranging from computer science and software engineering, to computing security and so on. White agreed that "you need people from all disciplines." 

Xhagolli explained, "Technology is always looking for people who are good at all sorts of different things." He hopes to "make it as comfortable as possible for other majors to come into the tech community ... CodeRIT is more about building the culture and building the community."

Recalling the origins of hacking as an endeavor as much analog as it later was digital, it is important to note that the projects these students work on at hackathons, competitions and even in their own free time benefit greatly from diverse, well-rounded groups. 

Xhagolli explained, "Technology is always looking for people who are good at all sorts of different things." He hopes to "make it as comfortable as possible for other majors to come into the tech community ... CodeRIT is more about building the culture and building the community."

"Hackathon culture is like a creating culture," Suero explained. As active members of CodeRIT, Suerro and Xhagolli are also highly involved in the coordination of BrickHack, a student-run annual hackathon held here at RIT. This year, it will occur on Feb. 11, 2017. In the past, there have been over 400 students in attendance. Participants from other nearby institutions are even bussed in for the event.

"We can hack for good and this is the way we can demonstrate that value and the power of that collective thinking," Hinton said.

"No matter the major, no matter the department, RIT is moving in the direction of interdisciplinary work," Hinton said. "We wanted hacking for good and for people to know and understand the value of those contributions." In this way RIT is contributing to "changing people's perceptions of hacking," she added. "We can hack for good and this is the way we can demonstrate that value and the power of that collective thinking."

"Students who participate in these competitions, these hackathons," Hinton concluded. "To me that is who the RIT student is."