Last week, a 10 year old boy hacked Instagram. At 15, the closest I came to hacking anything was overriding my guilt as I clicked an “Over 18” button.
For these kids, puberty was…different. For some it paid off. For others, not so much. But when it comes to lists of hacking legends, they’ve each earned their place.
The 16-Year-Old Who Hacked the Pentagon
In 1994, my dad’s new Juno account was, after two minutes of dial-up tones and screeches, bringing me my first taste of the Internet. I don’t know what ISP 16-year-old Richard Pryce was using, but under the screename Datastream Cowboy he and his 19-year-old partner in crime, Mathew Bevan (known as Kuji) spent weeks digging around in the Pentagon’s network trying to access a nuclear site in Korea.
The Pentagon knew they were being hacked. One would assume that the hackers knew the Pentagon knew, but they kept at it for awhile. They weren’t even arrested until two years later. While Pryce paid a fine, the conspiracy charges were dropped.
The 15-Year-Old Who Hacked the Web
Big companies make big targets, and little people (not the leprechaun kind, the kind who aren’t old enough to drive yet) can bring them down. Michael Calce of Quebec proved this in 1999 when the then-15-year-old crippled Internet giants like Amazon, eBay, CNN, and Yahoo (yes, Yahoo was an Internet giant in 1999). In total, he cost the companies he hit an estimated $1.7 million, which is roughly equivalent to Bezos’s head cream budget.
Calce pled guilty to around 50 charges and was sentenced to “open custody” (sort of like the Canadian version of house arrest, presumably with more maple syrup and apologies) and probation. He even got a book deal out of it!
The 15-Year-Old Who Hacked NASA
A hacker known as c0mrade (Jonathan James) didn’t get off so easily. After multiple other hacks, the one that finally brought him down was his 1999 entry into the Department of Defense and ultimately NASA’s computer system. He was arrested a year later, at age 16, after having cost the space agency an estimated $41,000 – they shut down their own computer system to scan for anything malicious and brought in outside contractors to communicate with the International Space Station.
James ended up serving six months in jail when he violated parole with a positive drug test.
The 14-Year-Old Who Hacked SWAT
Matthew Weigman is still serving time for his part in a “swatting” conspiracy, and for intimidating a witness involved in the case. He is due for release in 2018. That sentence is for crimes he committed in 2005 at age 17, but he’d been perfecting his skills for awhile.
As a 14-year-old blind kid – yes, blind – with exceptional hearing, Matthew was an expert “phreak”; a sonic-based phone hacker who could listen in, spoof calls, and make all sorts of mischief. The story behind his first ever SWAT spoof is almost sweet, in a John Hughes-meets-Michael Bay sort of way: a girl refused to have phone sex with him, so he called the police, spoofing the girl’s number on their caller ID system, and pretended to be holding her and her father hostage.
It’s the phreak equivalent to holding a boombox above your head, I guess. No news on how it worked out.
The 13-Year-Old Who Hacked Everything
Ah, James Kosta. Perhaps the most famous of the child hackers. At 13 and with a troubled family life, he hacked, like, seriously pretty much everything. Banks, military networks, IBM and GE…by 14 he was on the hook for 45 felony charges of technical burglary and was ultimately sentenced to 45 years in jail.
Amazingly, they let him join the Navy at the age of 18 instead of, you know, going to prison. Then the brought him into the CIA at age 20. Then at 24 he sold his first company for millions of dollars. And now he mentors kids and gives TED Talks. Essentially, he’s about as evil as they come.
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.