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11 signs your kid is hacking -- and what to do about it

Roger A. Grimes | July 7, 2016
Here’s how to find out if your child is involved in malicious online activity -- before the authorities do

11 signs your kid is hacking -- and what to do about it

I've shared a lot of security knowledge in my tenure as InfoWorld's Security Advisor. But what I've never shared before is that much of my initial computer security defense knowledge, which I turned into my first book, came from trying to stop my teenage stepson from being a malicious hacker.

I was newly dating his mother and he was a precocious 15-year-old who liked messing around with electronics and computers. He and his closest friends also flirted with malicious hacking, including harassing "ignorant" users, DoS-ing popular computer networks, making malware, and all sorts of unquestionably illegal and unethical hacking behavior.

His neighborhood computer hacking club eventually suffered a big takedown by the authorities. Luckily for him, and us, he had dropped out of illegal hacking activity a year before -- but not before he fought against me and his mom's rules and disguised his continuing hacking activities for many months. It was a daily (and nightly) battle of my latest defense against his new workaround. His mom and I even found previously unknown network cabling run through the attic and several hidden servers, proxy servers, and VPN switches. I learned a lot about hacking by trying to defeat his methods, and he learned that new potential stepdads trying to impress his mother were just as persistent -- and at times smarter.

His mom and I recently celebrated 16 years of marriage, and we're a happy family. In the years since fighting my stepson, I have detected many teenage hackers and have been asked by readers to counsel their hacking kids. No doubt a fairly substantial percentage of teenagers are maliciously hacking on a daily basis under the radar of their parents, who usually think their children are simply exploring what their computers can do and innocently conversing with their computer friends.

Hacking can provide a new world of acceptance and empowerment, especially for smart teenagers who are not doing all that well in school, are bored, or are getting harassed by other teens or by their parents because they "aren't working to their full potential." In the hacking world, they can gain the admiration of their peers and be mini-cyber rock stars. It's like a drug for them, and a good percentage can turn permanently to the dark side if not appropriately guided.

The following signs can help you ascertain whether a young person in your life is involved in unethical, illegal hacking. Some of the signs may be typical teenage behavior, given their grave interest in privacy, but enough of these signs together can point toward something more problematic. If you do find suspicious malicious activity, rest assured that you can turn a young hacker onto using their hacking skills for ethical, positive purposes, as I outline below.


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