Facebook Hacker Cup - what on earth could they mean?

Filed Under: Facebook, Privacy, Social networks, Spam

Facebook recently announced its Hacker Cup.

In predictable, gung-ho, forward-looking Facebook style, it's already documented as "founded 2011", and as "an annual Facebook programming competition .. for .. a shot at the coveted Hacker Cup."

I suppose there is no major technical reason why an event that has only happened once can't be deemed "annual", which, in turn, makes it equally acceptable to use the term for events which have happened zero times.

(I once got told off for being silly by some role-playing gamers who were discussing dice because I assumed the existence of D0s and D1s*. I still can't see what their problem was. No imagination, I suppose.)

As Facebook explains:

Hacking is a central part of Facebook's culture. Whether we're building the next big product at one of our Hackathons or creating a smarter search algorithm, we're always hacking to find a better way of doing things.

As many of you will know, I disagreed publicy with Graham Cluley, back in May, about the meaning of the word hacker. Graham wanted to reserve it to refer only to cybercrooks; I was willing to accept that it's back in common usage with a benign, or even a positive, sense.

Nevertheless, hacker must be considered ambiguous, so it's a pity Facebook didn't choose something a bit clearer. After all, their hacker contest is really just a coding competition - not hacking in the most general sense - so it would probably have been doubly better for them to have called it simply the Coders' Cup.

You can try some practice puzzles, which look like fun. But a couple of examples will probably give you some idea of what makes Facebook tick:

"As a popular engineer, you know many people in your home city. While traveling around town, visiting your friends, you realize it would be really handy to have a program that tells you which of your friends are closest based upon which friend you are currently visiting."

"Facebook is looking for ways to help users find out which friends they interact with the most on the site. Towards that end, you have collected data from your friends regarding who they interacted with on the site."

Here's what I'd love Facebook to do: pick a better name than "Hacker Cup", and create some puzzles which explicitly focus on improving privacy and security, rather than on accumulating data about other people or on finding out where they are.

Something to knock on the head the very many scams circulating on Facebook these days would be a good start.

Some scams, I am sorry to say, are largely the fault of thoughtless users - what makes you recommend to all your friends a site you haven't even seen yet? - but in a "country" of 500 million user accounts, it's reasonable to expect some sort of effective social security to protect the rest of us from those who just don't care.

PS: If you like puzzles, check back with Naked Security over the holiday season. I intend to provide some security fun - mainly for those who are stuck at work while many of us enjoy a break. In the meantime, why not practise on last year's Summer Fun Crossword.

[*] A Dn is an n-sided die. So a D12 is a dodecahedron, a D6 is what you play craps with, and a D2 is a coin. So why not a D1 or a D0? Where's your sense of adventure?

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8 Responses to Facebook Hacker Cup - what on earth could they mean?

  1. Ahh.. the "H" word.

    My view is that the English language is dynamic.

    Words can take on new meanings, and as fashions change they evolve.

    Think "terrific", which only began to gain its colloquial sense of "excellent" in the late 19th century (and was previously close chums with "terrible").

    Think "gay", which only came to mean homosexual in the mid 20th century.

    What's *most* important, in my opinion, is not the sensitivites of the people who are trying to hold on to the original meaning of "hacker", but instead that we speak in language that the general public will understand.

    It's more important that we are able to effectively communicate with the masses about computer security issues than confuse them with terminology like "crackers" to mean malicious hackers.

    The battle is already lost folks. "Hacker" is the publicly accepted term, and we should learn to accept it.

    I'm sorry if people find it offfensive or a shame or upsetting, but it's the collective will of the public which determines what a word means not anyone else.

    (Don't even get me started on how upset anglers should be that we've coined a criminal activity "phishing").

    • Paul Ducklin · 1759 days ago

      Graham! Ahem! You're the guy who thinks the singular of "dice" is "dice" :-)

      I consider "hacker" a contranym - it can mean two opposites. (Like "cleave", which can mean to stick together or to cut apart.)

      So you are quite right about clarity. This should be the Coders' Cup, since it's not really for hackers of either tribe.

      And as for terminology like "malicious hackers" - let's just agree to call them cybercrooks and be done with any ambiguity.

  2. Craig · 1759 days ago

    From memory, wasn't it the movies Hackers and Hackers 2 which came out in the 90s that most prominently mis-used the term "hackers" - I think they tried to clear up the distinction in the first movie but when you have a group of rebel kids hacking into every system they can find during a movie called "Hackers" then you are pretty much solidifying the misconception.

    So like most things, Hollywood are most likely to blame.

    Good film though :)

  3. Greg. · 1759 days ago

    I think hacking is a pretty widely usable term now..i consider myself to have always been a hacker, from an early age ripping apart stuff and seeing how it worked or how i could improve it..(or pehaps even just put it back together with all the screws in place, heh)
    I used to consider it an exclusive term though used for people who manipulated the various unices and networks like x25 etc and other systems for thier own devices and amusment, I dont think the word crackers came in till a little later, early to mid 90's maybe? Anyway, the stuff i used to do as a kid i do consider a form of hacking now. When i started though hacking was a pretty definable term, I was also a phone phreaker back in the day, and we had a definite distinction between the two although of course that was a form of hacking to. :) I considered hacking to be a good thing, although some of the stuff we did was way illegal, we always had the philosophy of never wrecking or destroying stuff, (that was deemed way wrong and we looked down on the people who did that) and never taking anything from individuals.
    A lot of this sense of right in the hacking world was actually gifted to me by Julian Assange, who was a great friend and amazing mentor, the sharing of knowledge (and not just telling ya how to do it, ya had to learn it yourself but he would assist when you needed) was a great thing then. :)

  4. Greg · 1759 days ago

    Oh, and on the dice thing..heh i think i asked the same question regarding A D1 when i was gaming, just for the amusment :) Ialways hated the word die. :)

  5. Chester Wisniewski · 1759 days ago

    Perhaps we could call it the "Accidental Disclosure Cup"?


  6. ankit · 1727 days ago

    I found this great blog explaining the solutions of qualification round of Hacker Cup.
    Double Squares: http://itbhu.ac.in/codefest/blog/?p=159
    Peg Game: http://itbhu.ac.in/codefest/blog/?p=172
    Studious Student : http://itbhu.ac.in/codefest/blog/?p=180
    Hope you will love this.

  7. Alexander · 1650 days ago

    Lets face the fact, without the knowledge of hacking, they can not be anything like system security. Hackers should be system security engineers!

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About the author

Paul Ducklin is a passionate security proselytiser. (That's like an evangelist, but more so!) He lives and breathes computer security, and would be happy for you to do so, too. Paul won the inaugural AusCERT Director's Award for Individual Excellence in Computer Security in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @duckblog