How to turn today’s teen rebels into tomorrow’s cyber special forces

Digital technologies have reshaped every facet of our lives, from communications and banking to shopping and entertainment. The internet permeates our lives to such a degree that we could live completely cloistered at home and never need to leave. In fact, in today’s world, even the phase of ‘teen rebellion’ is increasingly played out online, with teenage mischief no longer defined by petty vandalism and underage drinking, but now cyber-attacks and hacking.

Most of the time these kids are not maliciously trying to destroy people’s lives or business, but do it as prank or just because they can. Despite intentions born of boredom, kids can often fail to see the real-world consequences of their actions and, without timely intervention, can graduate from petty cyber vandalism to far more serious crimes. 

In February this year, a UK high school student was browsing bored one Saturday night, when he came across articles on printer hacking. After further digging, he found a way to hack into publicly-connected printers and send them documents to print. Alongside a collection of memes, he also printed “For the love of God, please close this port, skid” on more than 155,000 printers. The student said he had no malicious intent; he was bored and trying to raise awareness that these printers were vulnerable.

Closer to home, a 15-year-old boy in Adelaide brought an internet service provider, an education facility, and a government agency to their knees with a series of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. This attack variant involves overflowing a website with constant requests for information, causing it to crash and leaving it inaccessible to other users. Again, the boy had no malicious intent and was not collaborating with any hacking group, but wanted to see if he could successfully cause a DDoS.

As hacking becomes more common among younger generations, some countries are experimenting with new forms of intervention – dubbed ‘hacker rehab’ – to convince these youngsters not to stop hacking, but to use their skills for good. In cyber parlance, the good guys are known as ‘white hats’ while the bad are called ‘black hats’.

Just last month, the UK started a trial program to help these teens channel their talents positively. The program involves sending teens who were charged for cyberattacks or hacking to a weekend “rehab camp” where they are introduced to white hat hackers who then counsel and advise them.

The beauty of this program is that it not only solves a judicial issue in a more positive and progressive manner, but it can also go along away toward overcoming the security skills gap by inspiring young coders to pursue the life of a cyber Jedi, rather than a Sith. The goal is to bring these teenagers to the right side of hacking to protect businesses and individuals rather than destroy them.  

If this trial proves successful, every other country in the world should not delay the implementation of a similar program. Not only will we have a great chance at preventing these kids becoming major threats to society, but we can ensure we have a talented crop of analysts to bolster the defences and help answer the global cyber skills shortage. By doing, hopefully our institutions and critical infrastructure can avoid sharing the fate of 155,000 printers that were hacked just because a teenager was bored.

On 2017-08-23

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