Hackers: A Terrible Resource to Waste
Christopher Maxwell, a 20-year-old in Vacaville, Calif., pleaded guilty last month in a Seattle federal court to hacking into hundreds of vulnerable computers in the U.S. and Germany last year, when he was 19. He said he created a botnet of zombie computers that he directed to install adware secretly on other machines.
Maxwell's plea deal leaves him on the hook for $252,000 in damages to a Seattle hospital and the Department of Defense, where his attacks disrupted internal networks. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
Jeanson James Ancheta was sentenced in a Los Angeles federal court last month to nearly five years in jail for similar computer crimes he committed last year, when he was 19. Baseline's April cover story detailed Ancheta's exploits, including his taking in $60,000 in fraudulent adware payments and breaking into the Defense Department's systems.
Jeffrey Lee Parson was 18 when he infected at least 48,000 computers with a variant of the MS Blaster worm over four days in the summer of 2003. He pleaded guilty and is 16 months into an 18-month sentence.
Anthony Scott Clark pleaded guilty last December to spending that same summer--when he also was 18—attacking eBay with an army of 20,000 commandeered computers. He faces up to a decade in prison.
We lament the dwindling numbers of computer science graduates in the U.S. We wonder how to attract more college-bound kids to computer studies.
Meanwhile, promising brainpower goes to prison.
I'm not apologizing for hackers who break the law, get caught and get punished. But I do wonder why some obviously smart young men disdain the idea of college, and even quit high school, and apply their skills to computer crime. Teachers and corporate technology managers should connect with these kids before they connect to computers to commit crimes.
Information-technology professionals could help expand programs like Generation YES, for example, or develop similar ones. Generation YES started with a federal grant to bring technology into classrooms. Computer-savvy students get a teacher-partner to help hook up networks and think up ways to use technology in the everyday curriculum at their elementary, middle or high school. Local companies could send tech professionals to schools to do something like that, or have at-risk but computer-literate students intern at companies.
Generation YES is using technology to keep kids in school and, hopefully, avoid the criminal route.
Take Ancheta. He dropped out of high school in 2003, saying that he and his family planned to move to the Philippines, says Linda James, assistant to the principal at Downey High School in California, which Ancheta attended for two years. That didn't happen, and Ancheta got a general equivalency diploma from a nearby alternative school intended for students unsuccessful in regular school—such as pregnant girls and kids with drug or alcohol problems.
After that, Ancheta didn't go on to college or a full-time job. Instead, he made money when online advertising companies paid him to install adware on other people's machines. He invaded computers lacking firewalls or other security measures or those running unpatched or faulty software. He then put on the adware without their knowledge and made at least $60,000 this way from adware companies.
Another self-professed teenage hacker in Florida told me he dropped out of school because he was bored. He likes to sleep during the day and stay up all night at his computer. He hacked adware for spending money, he said, "and for fun."
Young hackers clearly don't want to do honest, if grungy and low-paid, work at a fast-food restaurant or a retail chain. (By the way, I haven't found any convicted female hackers. If you know of any, point me to them by e-mail, email@example.com, or join the discussion of Ancheta's case at Baseline's blog at http://projectmanagement.ithub.com.)
I suppose that many of these kids regard hacking as a risky game, on the same level as drag racing or sneaking cash from Mom's purse. But we need to start engaging these kids, and putting their minds and talents to productive use. The idea of a 20-year-old spending years in a cement-and-iron cell is a sad one for us all.
Kim S. Nash is senior writer at baseline. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.