Please hack us, says Facebook
Virtual world ... hacker Gary McKinnon. Photo: AFP
On one of the lesser visited pages of Facebook, there is a list of 109 hackers who have found ways of getting through the company's security firewalls.
Facebook is not naming and shaming them. On the contrary, the company has set up the page to thank them "on behalf of our millions of users for making a responsible disclosure".
The hackers have taken part in Facebook's White Hat program. Anyone who finds a way of breaching the site's networks, and owns up, can earn rewards worth thousands of dollars.
As well as money, Facebook promises not to land them in trouble with the police, if they have complied with the program's golden rules.
"If you give us reasonable time to respond to your report before making any information public, and make a good faith effort to avoid privacy violations, destruction of data and interruption or degradation of our service during your research, we will not bring any lawsuit against you or ask law enforcement to investigate you."
One British hacker has earned more than $2400 from Facebook, and the most prolific White Hat contributors are now given their own Facebook "bug bounty" credit cards.
Facebook's chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, says he would much rather the hackers worked with the company, rather than against it. In time, he hopes the hackers will be able to find legitimate ways of expressing themselves within schools and universities.
"There is a real lack of practical academic programs for cyber-security not only in the US but also internationally," he said. "Cyber-security is a skill best learned by doing, and unfortunately many of the current academic programs place little emphasis on real-world practical experience such as that gained in competition or via bug-bounty programs.
"This dearth of the right educational opportunities has a real impact on companies like ours who are searching far and wide for cyber-security experts to protect the networks and sites that people rely on and use every day.
"The lack of academic study programs for cyber-security is astonishing. If we are to succeed in defending our societies, businesses and individuals ... we need to encourage the growth of formal cyber-security studies. Cyber-security is unfortunately a constant battle."
The UK government has taken its first tentative steps into the twilight world of computer hacking, with the launch last year of the Cyber Security Challenge, a nationwide competition which gives experts and amateurs a chance to show off their computer literacy.
Winners are offered scholarships and funding for courses and are introduced to GCHQ, the UK's electronic warfare headquarters.
The carrot is one way of encouraging hackers to act responsibly, but the stick is being used, too - as supporters of the alleged British hacker, Gary McKinnon, have found.
McKinnon has been accused of hacking into dozens of US army, navy, air force, and Department of Defence computers, as well as 16 NASA computers. The charges relate to incidents that took place 10 years ago but, as his relatives point out, they have never been put before a court.
McKinnon has described himself as "bumbling computer nerd", not a criminal mastermind. The case has generated huge amounts of publicity for a message the US wants heard around the world.
Guardian News & Media