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Felony Arrest Not Key to Hacking Success

April 14th, 2015

Well, it has been quite a while since I put some random thoughts down in this forum. My apologizes to corrections.com and those of you who might have found my “pebbles of wisdom” of interest over the years.  (Yes, I know it is pearls, but that would be a bit vain of me wouldn’t it?)  Recent events have caused me to draw some parallels for those hacker wantabees out there and those who must deal with them when they are caught.

About a month ago the Fortune article 6 Notorious Hackers and Their Second Careers caught my eye.  I have been aware for years that two of the noted hackers in this article, notably Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen, had turned their life in a law abiding direction. For those who work in corrections this is a confirmation that individuals can and do turn away from a life of crime. Not that they need my praise, but well done to both of them.

The second event that occurred was the recent arrest of Pasco County, Florida teen for allegedly hacking into his school’s computer network to engage in an prank. This event was followed by an opinion piece by Robby Soave, staff editor at Reason.com. He notes in part:

Treating every small infraction of school rules as a crime requiring police involvement is a waste of time and public resources. And it’s bad for the kids. (Juvenile Name)  might not be able to return to school; will he learn anything from this experience? Will he become a more mature teen? Or will his life become immeasurably worse because officials went to DEFCON 1 over almost nothing?”

I agree with Soave that this youth doesn’t need to go to juvenile prison. However, I don’t agree that his conduct should just be ignored.  I also don’t believe the media is doing any service to this juvenile or other “wantabees” by glorifying his conduct.  This got me thinking about the old mindset that if one could hack one could become famous and get hired by some big tech company.   What are the odds that this juvenile who is being elevated to somewhat “star” status by the media might turn out to be another famous (infamous) hacker? Let’s take for a moment our two reformed hackers as examples.

Both Mitnick and Pouslen were jailed/convicted in around 1995/1996. During those years the U.S. Department of Justice charged between 43-45 defendants for computer fraud. So a rough estimate is that 4% to 5% of the “hacker” class of 1995/1996, made it “big.”

Let’s put that in comparison to sports, particularly at this time of seniors getting ready to graduate and go to college. Stats compiled by the NCAA reflect that 6.9% percent of the high schools who played baseball in high school went on to play in college.  For high school football players the percentage is 6.5%.  So the odds of playing college sports are better than making it big as a hacker. But wait, who cares about college … what about professionals?  The percentage of baseball and football college players who are were drafted professionally is 8.6% ( MLB) and 1.6%  ( NFL) respectively.  Obviously, this means less high school graduates make it to the big leagues.

Now I know many of you are like wow. You have a better chance of making it big as a hacker compared to playing professionally sports, provided of course you have “talent.” But not so fast Mister Matrix! The percentage I used for the hacker class is only federal convictions. There were countless convictions occurring at the state level, even in 1995/1995, which significantly reduce those “success”stats.

One also should point out that both Mitnick and Pouslen had to serve long periods of incarceration and later time on supervision. Mitnick in particular had computer restrictions that would make daily life today almost impossible.  Finally, it took both Mitnick and Pouslen a significant amount of time and energy to get where they are today.  Was prison and felon status a better first option than going to college and obtaining employment?  I would say no but they may answer otherwise. In the end, we have to treat cybercrime as any other crime. It is not a resume builder for the vast majority of individuals.  On that note, take care as I left a cigar lit somewhere.

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