Since the dawn of the personal computer, the words “teenage” and “hacker” have often been inextricably linked.
And classic films such as "Hackers," "Sneakers" and "Wargames," –not to mention one of the greatest hackers in pop culture Ed from the anime “Cowboy Bebop”-- about young hackers who find themselves in precarious situations involving government and espionage operations, serve to reinforce images of brilliant, misunderstood youth who in the end use their computer acumen to fight the bad guys and save the day.
But, as previously discussed in a Fortinet blog, it seems as though the image of the teenage hacker has gone from iconic, to prolific -so much so that it seems that publications from The York Times, to CNN, to niche tech blogs all regularly contain stories on the hacking shenanigans of today's youth.
Quantifying the precise number of youth hackers or attacks initiated by teenagers proves more difficult than expected. An advanced search for articles on teenage hackers between April 2011 and April 2012 shows 100 search results. The same search criteria for the preceding year shows a decline to 59 search results. And prior years continue this downward trend, plummeting sharply to 21 search results between April 2005 and April 2006, representing a decrease by a factor of 5x over the last seven years.
Now, Google search results are hardly concrete data, and the fact that stories on teen hacking have almost doubled in the last year could largely be attributed to raised awareness and public interest in the computer prowess of today's youth and increased means of detecting exploits.
And needless to say, the mischievous teens that did happen to make headlines likely represent a small minority of miscreants who actually managed to get themselves caught.
However, in recent years, there have been a few developments in the IT landscape that could potentially facilitate a rise in youth hacking, if not cybercrime altogether.
For one, few can deny that hacking tools, once only accessible to high profile government agents, cybercrime warlords and other members of the underground elite, are more widely distributed and available than ever before. Many Trojan and crimeware kits can easily be found on hacking forums, ranging in price from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the technological sophistication, type of features they contain and global reach.
And last year, source code for the pricey Zeus banking Trojan was leaked onto the Internet, equipping any would-be hacker with free access to malware tools that typically sold for as much as $10,000 a pop. The Zeus Trojan, once considered one of the most powerful and widely distributed pieces of malware, made a name for itself as a tool that nabbed victims' banking credentials and sent them along to remote servers operated by cybercriminals.
In short, if Web 2.0 makes everyone a desktop publisher, then the widespread distribution of cybercrime tools can make everyone-or almost anyone— what the media call “hackers.”
(In the underground, however, they’re known as "Script Kiddies” --which refer to the use of tools that are mere scripts, rather than full-blown Zeus kits-- and are heavily despised, experts say, by actual hackers who possess the ability to write their own scripts and exploits.)
Another factor that might contribute to the allure of youth hacking is its recent glamorization, depicted largely in mainstream news reports, as well as movies and TV shows. It seems that almost every week, reports of global hacking collectives such as Anonymous and its spinoffs AntiSec and LulzSec, enigmatically disguised by harlequin masks, grace the pages of mainstream news outlets.
Unlike hackers of yester year, illustrated in Sci-Fi and action films as criminals intent on taking down electrical grids, disrupting power supplies and generally causing pandemonium, these hackers-or more aptly called 'hacktivists'-appear to take a stand against human rights abuses, widespread corruption and censorship. For the last few years, reports have routinely highlighted shadowy Anonymous hackers taking pro-active stances on a range of humanitarian issues with denial of service attacks, Website defacements and illicit data dumps, always accompanied by the obligatory snarky posting on Pastebin.
Recently, some of the most notorious Anonymous hacking endeavors have targeted the Chinese government for blatant oppression and Internet censorship, the Federal Trade Commission for its inaction on Do Not Call requests and reluctance to block Google’s decision to combine information from its multiple services, and the Formula One Website for holding the Grand Prix in Bahrain, where leadership has openly murdered and tortured its own citizens.
Instead of being maligned, these hacking groups are almost lauded as modern day vigilantes-the Robin Hoods of cyberspace. And who wouldn't want to be a hero that can effect change, raise awareness and help tame greed and corruption on a global scale from the safety of your own basement?
Add to that mix the increasing affordability, accessibility and portability provided by laptops, tablets and smartphones, coupled with a lot of free time and an innate sense of curiosity, and you have all the right ingredients that pave the way for cybercrime’s rising stars.