Have you got a pirate in your school?

Something that rather belatedly crossed my professional radar has been the ‘antics’ of the Dread Pirate Roberts. I first caught up with this topic sitting in a hotel lounge in Singapore, reading the Forbes Asia September issue. Here was a fantastic challenge to the ongoing discussions of what happens online, including challenges to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the whole matter of appropriate global citizenship. The truth is, we must be aware that online environments can be manipulated as well as manipulative – and in that sector, drug trafficking,  porn and the sex trade exemplifies everything that is destructive to society despite the so-called ‘democratic’ right of people to engage in their own peculiar passions and vices.

So it was increasingly sophisticated anonymity tools in online environments that created a bustling online narcotics market – and in this realm Dread Pirate Roberts was king of the waters, running the booming anonymous narcotics bazaar known as the Silk Road . What’s interesting to me is not only the ethical issues of drug use and marketing etc, but ALSO the communication mechanisms that are deployed online.

The Forbes reporting on the Dread Prirate said:

An entrepreneur as professionally careful as the Dread Pirate Roberts doesn’t trust instant messaging services. Forget phones or Skype. At one point during our eight-month preinterview courtship, I offer to meet him at an undisclosed location outside the United States. “Meeting in person is out of the question,” he says. “I don’t meet in person even with my closest advisors.” When I ask for his name and nationality, he’s so spooked that he refuses to answer any other questions and we lose contact for a month.

All my communications with Roberts are routed exclusively through the messaging system and forums of the website he owns and manages, the Silk Road. Accessing the site requires running the anonymity software Tor, which encrypts Web traffic and triple-bounces it among thousands of computers around the world. Like a long, blindfolded ride in the back of some guerrilla leader’s van, Tor is designed to prevent me–and anyone else–from tracking the location of Silk Road’s servers or the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. “The highest levels of government are hunting me,” says Roberts. “I can’t take any chances.”

How many of your students are aware of these unofficial and anonymous back-channels?  I know I am not. Seems that neither were any of the Dread Pirate’s family.

A media report today tells us that it’s the End of the Silk Road. On Wednesday, the FBI announced that they arrested 29-year-old Ross William Ulbricht, the Silk Road’s accused administrator, in the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library.The FBI hasn’t yet revealed how it managed to track down Ulbricht in spite of his seemingly careful use of encryption and anonymity tools to protect his identity and those of his customers and vendors who visited Silk Road as often as 60,000 times per day.

My question is – which kid is going to be the next dirty ‘entrepreneur’?  Which library or cafe  is going to be that kid’s base for disruptive activities deployed via online environments?

Digital citizenship programs in schools?  What a challenge!

Real Wired Child

A while ago I had the opportunity to speak to the P&F at our largest high school. The topic was Myspace or Yours: Possibilities and Pitfalls.

Parents wanted to spend time talking about online safety, games, and hacking! Yes, it is true that for some of our students it is hard to provide them with the online and computer challenges that they crave.

I took with me a copy of Real Wired Child by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg. This is a wonderful guide for parents (unfamiliar with the online world) who want to know what their children are doing online, and what they can do to ensure their children’s wellbeing when they venture into cyberspace. Real Wired Child gives practical advice to parents on how they might manage their children’s online communications, social networking, web surfing, downloading and gaming. The truth is that we need to start teaching our students from a young age exactly how to learn, collaborate and share using blogs, wikis and more as part of everyday learning. I love the work of  Al Upton  and his young ‘mini-legends’ – proving that students are never to young to work in a global online world.

Michael Carr-Gregg urges parents to venture into the online world inhabited by their children and get in touch with their day-to-day lives. He explains what kids get up to, provides guidelines for family internet safety and advises how to minimise the risks without limiting your children’s freedom to learn, explore and communicate online. At $19.95 I consider this a bargain. Better still, buy some copies for the library, so parents can borrow a copy. More information available from Penguin.

I prepared a presentation for the evening, to stimulate discussion and thinking about the issues. Thanks to my (online) colleagues Graham Wegner and Sue Waters, whose earlier work provided a basis for this presentation.