Modern field guide to security and privacy

Video: More kids are becoming 'white hat' hackers

One striking theme from Passcode's profile of 15 hackers under 15 years old: The kids all had a strong sense of ethics – and a desire to create a safer digital future for their peers – rather than create chaos online for pranks. 

Ann Hermes
CyFi, 15, is one of the most prominent young ethical hackers in the country.

In its first major multimedia piece, Passcode profiled 15 hackers under 15 years old. One striking theme: The kids all had a strong sense of ethics – and a desire to create a safer digital future for their peers – rather than create chaos online for pranks.

CyFi, who declined to give her first name for privacy reasons, is one of the most prominent young hackers in the country – and the 15-year-old from Silicon Valley is imbued with a strong honor code. She cofounded r00tz Asylum, a hub for ethical hacking workshops for kids on the sidelines of the vaunted DEF CON hacking conference, and teaches the mantra: Only hack for good.

“Only hack things you own. Do not hack anything you rely on. Respect the rights of others. Know the law, the possible risk, and the consequences for breaking it,” the r00tz honor code reads. “R00tz is about creating a better world. You have the power and responsibility to do so. Now go do it!” 

Watch CyFi explain why she thinks ethical hacking is critical to protecting people's homes, schools, and workplaces: 

Hacking has become a much more acceptable hobby for kids. As digital threats increase, there's an influx of corporate money funding training programs for young people with the hope of filling a cybersecurity workforce shortage already estimated at 1 million jobs. There are also more incentives for kids to pursue ethical hacking than ever before, as companies increasingly adopt bug bounty programs to reward hackers who find security weaknesses in their systems with cash or other prizes. 

Unlike the early days of the internet in the 1990s, when many ethical hackers worried about getting arrested over their work, today's young "white hat" hackers are actively encouraged by adults.

There's Andrew Wang, for instance, who captained the team that last year beat out more than 460 others to win the middle school CyberPatriot national cyberdefense competition. It's organized by the Air Force Association to test the technical skills of high schoolers and middle schoolers and inspire them to go into cybersecurity or related technology fields. 

Here's why Andrew, 14, thinks it's important to change the public's perception of hackers as criminals: 

Then there are techies like Paul Vann, who downloaded online hacking tools and started to teach himself how to break into Wi-Fi networks after reading a book by self-described “break-in artist” Kevin Mitnick called “Ghost in the Wires,” whose escapades famously included stealing proprietary code from companies.

But Paul, based in Virginia, wanted to make sure he didn’t break any rules – so he asked his neighbors for permission to break into their home internet. “I was finally able to break into something without getting into trouble,” says Paul, 14, who has since founded his own cybersecurity company called Vann Tech. 

“It’s really important you consider ethics before you try to break into another system – and you want to make sure whatever you’re doing is not going to harm that system. And whatever you do, tell the person.”

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