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Diary of a Teenage Hacker

by Neal O'Farrell on January 31st, 2011

Teenage hacking is nothing new. Jonathan James was the first juvenile sent to prison for hacking, and was just 16 years old when he was sentenced to six months in prison in 2000 after he hacked into the computers of NASA’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. In that same year, a 15-year-old Canadian hacker using the codename MafiaBoy used his hacking skills to close down some of the world’s busiest web sites including Yahoo!, eBay, and CNN. And in 2003, an 18-year-old from Minnesota admitted to creating the Blaster computer worm that infected tens of thousands of computers in just a few days.

And while more recent adult hackers are often employed by criminal cybergangs and state sponsors of cyberespionage, teenage hacking may be on the rise again thanks in part to Facebook. A recent survey by an Israeli security firm into the secret lives of teenagers found that many engage in a bedroom hobby that their parents might not approve of. According to the study, which interviewed 1,000 teens in New York, and another 1,000 in London, one in every six American teenagers admits to hacking – breaking into things like computers, web sites, and email accounts – while one in four British teenagers have tried their hand at it.

Tufin Technologies, in their own survey, cite that “Exactly half (50%) of US kids sampled revealed they’d had their Facebook or email account hacked, which may explain why 75% feel hacking is wrong and 70% think it should be considered a criminal offense.”  Only 15% of the entire sample has either been caught or knows someone who has.

Why hack?

According to the study “The most common reason cited for hacking was for fun (54%), followed by curiosity (30%). Fourteen percent that hack aimed to cause disruption. And a resourceful 7% of US kids thought they could generate an income from the activity, with 6% viewing it as a viable career path!”

Who hacks?

While most were boys, nearly 30% were girls. American kids hack less, and get caught hacking substantially less than their UK counterparts. Additionally, just in the US, 34%  had already hacked by age 13 and 52% hacked between the ages of 14-16.

Is hacking cool or uncool?

Seventy percent of UK teenagers thought hacking was “uncool” versus 61% of US teenagers.  And while roughly 70% of US students thought hackers should be viewed as criminals and be punished by the law, only 53% of UK teenagers agreed.

Will you get caught if you hack?

In the UK, 27% of teen hackers have been caught or know someone who has been caught hacking, as opposed to only 15% in the US.

Who’s the biggest target?

Facebook, of course, followed by their friends’ email accounts are the primary targets. In the US, half of the teens said they have had their Facebook or email accounts compromised.

Where does the hacking happen?

In the US, home is the favorite hacking haunt, favored by more than half of US teen hackers, twice as many as in the UK. Roughly a quarter of hackers on both sides of the Atlantic admitted to using school computers to hack.

Teens often don’t appreciate the impact of some of the things they do and say, and what some teens might view as a prank, a dare, or a way to show off, others might view more seriously. Even an innocent attempt at hacking might end a teen up in court, facing fines and court costs, civil penalties, a criminal record, and even jail time.

It could also impact their college plans and future job opportunities. So if your kids are active online and you’re concerned that they might have certain skills and inclinations that could get them into trouble, maybe it’s time to sit them down and say “Honey, I think you’re now old enough for us to have that chat about the ‘H’ word.”

When hackers are caught, their time lurking in the shadows is brought to an abrupt end. Jonathan James was later suspected to have some involvement in series of massive hacking attacks against a number of retail stores including TJ Maxx, DSW Shoes, and Officemax. He continued to proclaim his innocence, but with an apparent conviction looming ahead and  negative attention and publicity, he took his own life on May 18, 2008. This is a more extreme, dramatic outcome to cite; but the story of Jonathan James, America’s first juvenile hacker, serves as a cautionary tale for any teen curious about hacking. IF your teen or a teen you know is still curious, it wouldn’t hurt to cite the 18-year-old who admitted creating the Blaster worm out of curiosity. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Regardless if it is the lure of a clandestine lifestyle or simple the Hollywood image conjured in films like Hackers, the fallout after an arrest, much like residual data on a hard drive, is difficult to purge.

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