Valuing Teen Hackers

Two stories this week reminded me of how a determined teen can hack through just about anything. The first was that a 17-year-old from New Jersey unlocked the iPhone. He spent 500 hours of his summer vacation freeing the device from AT&T; (the exclusive carrier for the iPhone) and then, of course, sold his phone on eBay. The second story was about a 16-year-old Australian who hacked through the government’s $84 million pornography-filtering software in less than a half hour. These are obviously very high profile hacking cases, but I bet there are countless similar stories of teens disabling school filters, breaking into servers to change grades or find old term papers or tests or figuring out ways to get something for nothing online.

It’s not that teens want to “break the law” in the high profile cases or even look at the content you’re attempting to block – they hack because it’s a challenge — it’s exciting. USA Today reported that according to an anonymous survey of about 4,800 San Diego area high school students presented at the American Psychological Association conference:

– 38% said they copied software without permission.
– 18% went into someone’s computer or website without permission, and 16% took material.
– 13% changed a computer system, file program or website without permission.

Boys were far more likely than girls to hack and illegally copy software. But only about one in 10 teens said they did it to cause trouble or make money. Many more cited learning about computers or because “it is exciting and challenging” as their main motives.

When I was writing Totally Wired, I remember interviewing a teen in Atlanta who told me that his school’s administrator encourage him and his friend to try to hack into the school’s network. He said, “Look for holes, and when you find them tell me.” I love that this network administrator empowered the teen by leveraging his hacking skills to improve the school network’s security. Apple should hire the New Jersey teen right after he graduates from the Rochester Institute of Technology. By channeling teens’ tech talents into something more positive and productive, you not only validate their know-how — you also gain an edge by making your own software or network or website more secure.

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