News / Science & Technology

Hacking for a Better World, It Helps

Renowned American hacker Johnny Long now gets other hackers to volunteer their skills to charities in Jinja, Uganda. (VOA/Hilary Heuler)
Renowned American hacker Johnny Long now gets other hackers to volunteer their skills to charities in Jinja, Uganda. (VOA/Hilary Heuler)
One American computer hacker has figured out how to harness the knowledge and creativity of other hackers around the world to help local Ugandan charities solve their information technology problems -- for free.

For 15 years, Johnny Long was paid by governments and major firms to break into their systems and sometimes their buildings, identifying security holes. His techniques are legendary in technology circles, his books are widely read and people flock to hear him speak at conferences.

But when Long first came to Africa, he says he did not think he would have much to offer.

“I’m a high-tech guy, I hardly have any other skills. I get somebody else to change light bulbs," said Long. "I’m just not the type that you would think of going to Africa and doing anything.”

But he did know computers and he knew a lot about hackers.

“I knew that they got a bad rap from a few people that were committing crimes with their name," said Long. "I saw these people doing good things. But I realized there was no charity that was technology-based that was for them.”

Inspired by a trip his wife had taken, and determined to help, Long moved his family to Jinja, Uganda, in 2009.

There he founded Hackers for Charity, which provides a way for hackers around the world to volunteer their skills to cash-strapped local charities that cannot afford tech support. Hackers can volunteer remotely, building and securing websites or they can come to Uganda in person to help set up and maintain computer labs.

Long says the work might not be warm and fuzzy, but for many organizations it is essential. Renee Bach, who runs a charity for malnourished children, is one of the beneficiaries. She points out that computers are vital in keeping her organization going.

“We use computers for all of our data and record keeping and all of our bookkeeping and finances as well," said Bach. "We have Skype board meetings and things like that over the Internet as well. A lot of our communication with donors is done over the Internet.”

Students learn IT skills for free at a computer lab set up with the help of volunteer hackers in Jinja, Uganda. (Hilary Heuler for VOA)Students learn IT skills for free at a computer lab set up with the help of volunteer hackers in Jinja, Uganda. (Hilary Heuler for VOA)
Students learn IT skills for free at a computer lab set up with the help of volunteer hackers in Jinja, Uganda. (Hilary Heuler for VOA)
Students learn IT skills for free at a computer lab set up with the help of volunteer hackers in Jinja, Uganda. (Hilary Heuler for VOA)
Long says persuading people to work with hackers is not always easy. The stigma attached to the term can drive donors away.

“Most organizations see that word hacker - which we won’t remove from our name, because it’s who we are - and that’s it. End of discussion," said Long. "Organizations that would normally donate to us won’t donate because they’re fearing a news story.”

He says working with hackers does come with challenges. Some of his volunteers prefer to remain anonymous, taking precautions to prevent their emails from being traced. And, he adds, identity is not the only problem.

“The other challenge is vetting the volunteers," said Long. "If you have somebody that has bad motives and they just want to put a back door into a client’s website instead of fixing it, that becomes sticky.”

Long’s volunteers have numbered in the thousands, and he screens them all carefully. Tim Rosenberg, an IT professional who has volunteered twice with Long, insists that the majority are just grateful for the chance to use their expertise to benefit others.

“We’re not known for our social skills," said Rosenberg. "We’re known for spending hours and days and months in windowless offices interfacing on laptops and computers, and not really moving outside of that bubble. An organization like Hackers for Charity, that provides the ability to start impacting into the wider community and the world, is just a phenomenal opportunity.”

Long says he hopes the work they do will change the public’s perceptions of hackers as well.

“We’re able to show hackers aren’t just about mayhem and causing trouble," said Long. "We’re actually making a difference.”

In the mean time, Long admits his own tech skills are getting a bit rusty. But he feels like he is helping to save lives and says he is not looking back.

You May Like

Kurdish President: More Needed to Defeat Islamic State

In interview with VOA's Persian Service, Massoud Barzani says peshmerga forces have not received weapons, logistical support needed to successfully fight IS in northern Iraq More

Sierra Leone's Stray Dog Population Doubles During Ebola Crisis

Many dog owners fear their pets could infect them with the virus and have abandoned them, leading to the increase and sparking fears of rabies More

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

New methods for mapping pain in the brain not only validate sufferers of chronic pain but might someday also lead to better treatment More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs