For Wireless Teens Curiosity Can Lead to Cybercrime

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For an alarming number of American youth, hacking is fast becoming a teenage rite of passage – something to experiment with, like smoking, drugs and drugs. In a 2009 study by Panda Security of the over 4,000 fifteen to eighteen year olds, 67% of the teens surveyed admitted they tried to hack into friends’ instant messaging or social network accounts.

It’s not surprising that curiosity seems to be the main motivation for teens to try their hand at hacking. A 2010 survey of 1000 New York City teenagers by Tufin Technologies revealed that 39% thought hacking was cool and 16% admitted to trying it.

If you’re about to dismiss that kind of behavior as “kids will be kids,” consider this: the Panda study also found that 17% of teens say they can find hacking tools on the Internet. Almost a third of that number admit to having used them – they say, out of curiosity.

When Hacking for Fun Turns Serious

Of course, teen hackers have been around for decades. But over the years, they have changed from “script kiddies” strutting their stuff to teens wreaking high tech havoc on Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, social networks and schools.

Recent newspaper headlines about teen hacks in schools suggest that something more may be going on than “revenge of the nerds.” In Florida, a teenager was charged with hacking into a school district’s computer system and sending a threatening message to students and parents. In California, a student stood trial for hacking into a school database and changing student grades. In New Jersey, two teenagers were charged with installing keystroke logging malware to gain access to the school’s computer system.

This year, the vulnerability of wireless networks to tech savvy teens was in the spotlight again. A handful of teen hackers brought down the mighty Twitter, just to prove it could be done.

Social Networking Sites Spawning Young Hackers

But social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook aren’t just victims of teen hacking pranks. They are the incubator for the next generation of hackers, according to a 2009 poll of 1000 British teenagers by Trend Micro. 40% of the teens polled admitted hacking the profile of someone else on a social networking site or looking at online banking records of another person. 30% said they were tempted to try hacking or spying on the web to make money.

Those findings were echoed by the 2010 Tufin Technologies survey of New York teenagers. Seven percent of those polled thought they could generate income from hacking. Six percent viewed hacking as a viable career option.

Over half of the teens in the Tufin survey said they had no issue hacking from their home computers. Perhaps that could partly be due to the fact that parents aren’t paying attention to what their children are doing online. According to the 2009 Panda Security study, 63% of parents were concerned about the online security of their children. But none of the major concerns they expressed were about their children engaging in illicit activities on the Internet.

In the virtual world, teens often see hacking as fun – an invisible activity with faceless victims and little chance of being discovered.  To prevent their curiosity from turning into cybercrime, keep a watchful eye on your children’s Internet use.

What You Can Do

No matter how innocent their intentions, tell them it’s unethical and illegal to access someone else’s personal information online without permission.

If you want to protect your children from other young people who might be hackers, remind them that anonymous surfing is the only way to travel on the Internet. That means using strong passwords and never sharing personal information online that can lead to identity theft and credit fraud. Use a virtual protection network like PRIVATE WiFi™ will insure all their online traffic is invisible to hackers.

If you have a teen hacking story, we’d like to hear from you. Let us know what happened and what you did about it.

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Jan Legnitto

Jan Legnitto is an investigative journalist and documentary producer who writes about criminal justice and intelligence issues. Jan is also a frequent contributor to the Private I blogs.