At the age of 5, an American boy Kristoffer von Hassel became the youngest hacker after he found a vulnerability in the Microsoft Live Xbox system that allowed him to bypass the parental blocks put in his dad’s gaming console to prevent him from playing.
By repeatedly trying multiple password combinations, Hassel found a glitch that let him enter the wrong password and then allowed access when he entered a series of spaces. Hassel was soon discovered by his parents playing the video game, which led to the reveal of the security glitch and the massive media coverage that followed.
However, not all hacking stories have a happy ending. Many lead to arrests.
A simple Google search will list multiple hacking incidents involving teenagers and young adults. A recent report highlighted how some of the biggest cybercrimes were being orchestrated by individuals who were not old enough to graduate high school.
In 2022, a 16-year-old was accused of being one of the leaders of the infamous extortion hacker group Lapsus$. The teen allegedly amassed $14m through his hacking activities and managed to infiltrate tech giants and corporations such as Microsoft. The police arrested seven individuals between the age of 16-21 in connection with the hacking group investigation.
17-year-old Graham Ivan Clark was the mastermind behind the massive 2020 Twitter hacking that impacted over 130 Twitter accounts, including those of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden. Clark was sentenced to 3 years of jail.
While it is evident that teens hack, the question is why?
Why are so many hackers kids? What urges them to step into the dark side and indulge in lawlessness?
Curiosity: The Double-Edged Sword
Children, by nature, are curious beings, and while “hacking” may have a negative connotation, especially with regard to children, it often is not the motivation. Many teens are drawn to technology and explore hacking out of curiosity.
A recent study shows that 70% of children spend at least three hours on devices daily. At the same time, only about half of parents use parent-controlling apps or supervise children as they use digital devices, while the rest pay less attention to their children’s digital behavior.
The freedom to explore often gives children a chance to stumble into activities which they may not entirely understand.
Many, especially those with technical aptitude and an inclination towards critical thinking and problem-solving, explore hacking to understand how systems work and satisfy their inquisitive nature.
In a study conducted by the National Crime Agency, it was found that teenage hackers were motivated by “idealism and impressing their mates rather than money,” The Guardian reported.
The study, which interviewed teens as young as 12 arrested for computer-related crimes, found that the children were inspired by their desire to solve technical problems, seek attention and prove themselves to their friends.
“Conquering the challenge, proving oneself to the group and intellectual satisfaction are more important motivations than financial gain,” the report stated.
Jake Davis, aka Topiary, was a former member of the infamous hacker collective Anonymous. At the age of 18, Davis was arrested in July 2011 for criminal activities, including cyber raids and hacking of government websites.
In an interview, Davis shared how his purpose was to challenge secrecy. “It was not financially motivated at all, as the NCA report says, it was mostly politically motivated. I was motivated as a teenager by the idea that this internet was this utopian space that shouldn’t be controlled or filtered or segmented or chopped up into little blocks and distributed out, and that it should be open and free, and anyone in the world should be able to use it.”
Davis was only 13 when he began exploring the internet.
While curiosity, peer pressure, and the need to challenge technology plays a crucial role in stimulating children towards hacking, unsupervised exposure to the digital landscape also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, especially by the perpetrator who are always on the lookout for the innocent.
Hacker:HUNTER, a four-part series, explores the different phases of teen hacking and tells the stories of children for whom hacking turned into their favorite game.
Directed by Hugo Berkeley, Didi Mae Hand, and Lara Maysa Ingram, the cybercrime series provides an overview of children hackers, how they get acquainted with the hacking world, what stance the penal system takes with regard to minor offenders and, finally, raises the question of whether there is a way out.
Hackers Recruiting Children Through Online Gaming
In recent years, gaming has captured the attention of children worldwide, exposing them to a world of unlimited virtual possibilities.
However, with this, they have also become easy targets for hackers, who often lurk on gaming platforms to identify skilled children and groom them into carrying out hacking tasks.
“Kids are curious. Kids want to play. And that’s just amazing! For this season, we asked ourselves what happens if that curiosity turns into criminal behavior? Is it even possible for a 14-year-old to figure out that they are doing something illegal while sitting on their computer in their kid’s room?” asks Rainer Bock, hacker:HUNTER’s Executive Producer.
Rehabilitating Teen hackers, is That a Possibility?
Over the years, the number of teen hacking incidents has continued to rise, urging law enforcement agencies to take a harder look at the issue impacting young minds. However, it is often wondered whether hackers can be rehabilitated and if they can eventually be trusted.
There have been several incidents where teen hackers have confessed to being in a “dark place” while indulging in hacking-related activities and regretted their actions.
In an interview, former hacker Cal Leeming, who was convicted of using over 10,000 stolen identities to buy £750,000 worth of goods, shared how he got into illegal activities at the age of 11.
“I was convicted of ‘causing a computer to perform a function with intent to secure unauthorized access’, under The Computer Misuse Act (1990), at the age of 12. I’m still the UK’s youngest convicted hacker,” he told Metro News.
In his interview, Leeming shared how things quickly escalated into crime and he was “breaking into various ISPs [internet service providers] and companies to steal data.” However, things got to a point where Leeming said that he “wanted to get caught”.
Charlton George, who brought down the websites of the FBI and Home Office at the age of 16, regretted his actions. “I honestly regret doing that type of thing now. I got caught up in a world that is rather dark, but it gives you a home when you’re not quite happy with real life,” he said, Coventry Telegraph reported.
While many know Marcus Hutchins as the hacker “who saved the internet” as he stopped the WannaCry ransomware attack, not many know that he was arrested for the hacking he had done during his teen.
Hutchins was accused of being part of a conspiracy where he created and distributed malware ‘Kronos’, which targeted banking websites. He was sentenced to “time served” and one year of supervised release.
Talking about teen hacking becoming an issue in the future, Hutchins told online magazine Slate that it was a “very hard problem to solve.”
“It is very hard to put an end to teen mischief without putting them in jail, and no one wants to see teens in jail, especially not myself. It’s very hard to think of any way that’s enough deterrence to stop them from doing it without just being completely overboard. I personally can’t think of any punishment that would have stopped me at that age that wasn’t way over the top,” he said.
While clearly, there is no one solution to the prevalent problem of teen hackers, it is essential to look at all aspects of individuals, especially teens indulging in criminal activities.
In a bid to deter cybercrimes committed by teens, law enforcement agencies need to look beyond the crime and take initiatives such as rehabilitation programs to help them move towards the right path.