Blazers take tech skills to the dark side
Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
It's a little past midnight when Humbert, a junior, sits down at his computer. His house is quiet; the majority of his AOL buddy list is away or off-line. But five minutes later, Humbert has assuaged his late night boredom not by playing a game of Spider Solitaire or blogging, but by logging on to the Internet's most notorious piracy network. Humbert, a generally quiet student, is immersed in a world of hardcore file-sharing, hacking and other activities that are classified as felonies.
Today, with high-speed Internet connections, loose enforcement of file-sharing laws and a widespread knowledge of computer architecture, teenagers have more power than ever right at their fingertips. According to an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 Blair students taken on Jan. 3 and 4 during 5B lunch, 71 percent of Blazers said they download music often using a program such as LimeWire, which takes minutes to download and install. On a national level, 66 percent of Internet using teens have downloading experience, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. This age of technology has opened the door to teenage hackers, some of whom have left criminal marks upon top organizations' web sites.
But for Blazers like Humbert, the World Wide Web presents the opportunity for mischief that goes beyond the average music download to highly illegal actions like hacking and spreading viruses.
Mischief or malice?
Hackers can be divided into two camps: the criminal masterminds who break into security systems and those without bad intentions. Laurie Cranor, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, describes the malicious computer users as "crackers." Unlike crackers, traditional hackers are simply computer-savvy people who are trying to use their skills to feed their own inquiring minds.
Junior Kevin McGehee, a BEN System Operator, attributes teenage hackers' actions to curiosity. "It's just playing around with things and asking, 'What will this do?'" he explains.
Sophomore Tony Chou considers himself an innocent hacker: He uses his knowledge not to cause damage but to annoy people. Chou created an program that, when downloaded by an Internet browser, opens up an infinite number of new windows, overloading the computer.
But for Humbert, hacking does not involve playful games or irksome programs. About four years ago, Humbert started to get involved in computer programming. After he became satisfied with seeing what makes a computer come together, "the next logical step was taking it apart," he says.
Humbert started out slowly over the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a network of tech-savvy computer users. He made a friend in Canada who quickly showed Humbert the "dark side" of computer technology. In a playful conversation, Humbert made fun of his friend. Minutes later, his computer was barred from the Internet and would not function. His friend then called to say, "Gotcha!"
Cranor describes these teenage hackers as people who are drawn by the intrigue of hacking without truly knowing what they are getting themselves into.
For example, in 2000 "Mafiaboy," a 16-year-old from Canada, froze the web sites of several major organizations, including CNN, Yahoo! and Amazon, by inundating them with thousands of messages at once. In his book "The Hacker Diaries," author Dan Verton writes that Mafiaboy was not aware of the power he had. He based his attacks upon a program he downloaded from a fellow hacker in Germany.
This lack of foresight is a common aspect of the hacking culture, according to Cranor. "We call these hackers 'script kiddies,'" she says. "They're just kids who don't really know anything except how to use scripts that other people have used and they have found on computer bulletin boards."
However, things on the Internet have a tendency to get out of hand, as was the case with Mafiaboy. "People just want to test the limits, but what if it gets bigger? Maybe you thought of how you would make a virus propagate, so you send it to friends, but it spreads out and causes actual damage." McGehee says.
Humbert is not worried about his viruses getting out of hand. Through LimeWire, he spreads a type of virus called botnet - a virus that relies upon electronic robots. Once a bot is downloaded onto someone's computer and the user logs onto the IRC or another Internet communication medium, Humbert can control what the bot does. He can freeze a user's computer and deny him Internet service. He and his friend in Canada have also worked to make their virus undetectable by most virus scanners.
Humbert derives a sense of power and strength from his hacking by taking requests from friends to block other people's Internet connections. Once Humbert blocks a user from the Internet, only he can restore the Internet connection.
Illegal music to their ears
Illegal downloading is another common practice among teenagers on the Internet. Johnny, a freshman, says that he downloads simply because he can. According to Madden and Lenhart, this is a common reason among American teenagers. Johnny, who has upwards of 400 illegally downloaded files, has fun finding music on LimeWire. "I download if I like the song but I don't want to buy the whole CD," he says.
Aidan, a sophomore, also obtains songs from LimeWire. He has upwards of 4,000 songs, but believes that he will not be prosecuted for downloading.
Johnny is not afraid of getting caught, despite the fact that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has started to prosecute individuals who download music. In 2003, the RIAA made headlines by suing 12-year-old Brianna LaHara for her illegal downloads. As recently as Dec. 15, 2005, the RIAA sued 751 users of file-sharing programs, including students at Harvard University, Drexel University and the University of Southern California, according to the RIAA web site.
The threats from the RIAA frightened freshman Alisa Burdeyny, who downloaded illegally several times before getting worried. Now, Burdeyny pays $9.95 per month for unlimited legal downloads from Rhapsody Music.
Just as Humbert hacks illegally, he downloads illegally too: He is involved in an online file-sharing community known as the Scene, a complex amalgam of groups that compete to distribute various forms of media. This is the place to find films and albums months before they are released, as well as to download any costly computer programs. Humbert works with an MP3 group, which allows him access to the highly secure Scene.
Humbert has used the Scene to his advantage many times, like when he downloaded the CD of one of his favorite bands in the early summer, several months before it was released to the general public. "I have access to it, so why not use it?" he says. He has also used the Scene to download computer programs that he only uses once or twice, as he doesn't want to pay full price for it. His parents, who have no idea about this extracurricular activity, have enjoyed several films downloaded illegally by Humbert. He estimates that he has obtained at least $10,000 worth of pirated media.
Cranor cites this satisfaction as one of the many reasons why teenagers hack. "Sometimes they want to make money by stealing credit card numbers. Other times it's for a challenge, or to get the sense of being a rebel," she says.
Humbert is not concerned with the legal and ethical qualms of hacking. "There's just something satisfying in it," he says. "I mean, I have the power to take down a high school server for a month; it takes me five seconds to shut down basic systems." And for this sense of power, Humbert continues to cross the electronic boundary that separates innocent Internet surfing from illegal mayhem.
Becca Sausville. Becca is a senior who is keeping the dinosaur dream alive. She loves Silver Chips a lot, possibly more than life itself. More »