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Welcome to Generation Hack

You don't need to be a web trendster or pop culture vulture to recognise we're on the cusp of a new age; a fresh wave of inquisitive HTML meddlers. Never mind Generation X. Forget Generation Y. This isn't Generation Z. It's Generation Hack.

Hacking seems to be everywhere right now. It's big news. The BBC got hacked on Twitter. Yahoo's email system got attacked by spammers. Even behemoths Apple and Facebook have felt the sting of hackers' digital dabblings.

Who are the humans behind the hacking? Well, sometimes it's organised criminals. Sometimes it's political activists. Occasionally it's government-sponsored attacks.

But then there are the younger hackers.

Teenage hackers are nothing new, of course. WarGames came out in 1983, after all. And the web's been hacked since its inception. But according to research carried out by AVG, kids as young as 11 are writing malicious code to hack video games and social networks.

Basically, hackers are getting younger. They're getting better. And there's more than ever.

You don't need to be a web trendster or pop culture vulture to recognise we're on the cusp of a new age; a fresh wave of inquisitive HTML meddlers. Never mind Generation X. Forget Generation Y.

This isn't Generation Z.

It's Generation Hack.

The next generation

So who are these hackers? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? And what should we do about them?

It's probably best to start out by reminding ourselves that Generation Hack isn't made up of robots or aliens. They're just kids. Teenagers. With exceptional programming skills. And an insatiable curiosity to find out how things work.

Kids as young as 11 are writing malicious code

George Hotz, aka Geohot, is often credited as the kick-starter of the 'hacker wars'. In 2007 Hotz hacked his iPhone so he could use it with his existing network, T-Mobile. He was congratulated by Apple. He became a celebrity. He was 17.

Generation Hack was born.

Like many of his peers, Geohot was mostly interested in the challenge of hacking: getting inside a machine. Seeing how it works. Changing it. Making it work in a way it was never intended. For a lot of hackers, what they do is like a benign sport. A competition. They're in it for the kudos. The status.

A different note

Not everyone in Generation Hack is like Hotz. Not everyone has pure-ish intentions. Because if you can hack, you can steal.

The appropriately named DJ Stolen managed to 'earn' more than £13,000 by hacking personal info and breaking copyright laws. His victims? Lady Gaga. Justin Timberlake. Leona Lewis.

But even the judge in his case decided he was motivated more by "a desire for recognition than by criminal intent". DJ Stolen was eventually ordered by the courts to undergo therapy. For internet addiction. True story.

Money isn't the only motivations behind harmful teenage hacking. Sometimes coding flair combines with a desire for virtual domination. Online cheating and in-game theft ensues. In 2010 a 17-year-old hacker used a tool called Phenom Booter to hack Call of Duty: Black Ops. He knocked out players. Boosted his score. Took down entire servers.

Teenage hackers can cause epic damage from their bedroom

And that's just the tip of the internet iceberg. All over the world kids are writing code to steal in-game currency, items and identities. They manipulate games with 200 million players. They hack Facebook profiles, and Twitter accounts.

They're finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in the programs and software we use every day.

But for every young hacker motivated by competitiveness, greed or game dynamics, there are members of Generation Hack that do it merely to alleviate the tediousness of their teenage existence.

These are the slacker hackers. They hack out of boredom. They're in it for the lulz. Usually, this leads to mischief rather than malice. However, inevitably a significant number of hackers use their powers for evil - resulting in business meddling, cyber bullying and trolling.

Crime and punishment

The treatment of Generation Hack seems to vary. Zachary Woodham, a 19-year-old student, destroyed a web hosting company and was caught in possession of 3,500 stolen bank accounts. As 'Colonel Root', Woodham laundered more than £2,000 from the stolen cards.

But Woodham didn't go to prison. He got a suspended sentence and community work. He was free to carry on with his Law degree at Sussex University.

Jake Burchill escaped prison, too. As a 16-year-old he hacked PayPal, among others, causing £3.5 million of damage. Being under 18 and described as "extremely isolated", Burchill received an 18-month youth rehabilitation order and was sentenced to 60 hours of community service.

Generation Hack is driven by a variety of motives

Despite their seemingly malign intentions, many would argue Woodham and Burchill got off pretty lightly. But Generation Hack doesn't always escape more meaningful punishment - even if their intentions are actually to help.

Hamed Al-Khabaz, a 20-year-old student at Dawson College in Canada, found a network vulnerability and reported it to school administrators. He thought they'd be pleased.

They weren't. He was expelled.

Waging the war

Crime. Cheating. Injustice. What do we do about all of this?

With so many talented young hackers out there, maybe we've reached a defining moment in web culture.

Generation Hack could become 'white hat' web Jedis. They could find and report web security weaknesses. Protect the net. Or they could go to the Dark Side. Grow up to be 'black hat' hackers. People that make a career out of stealing money and data through spam, trojans, phishing and scareware.

Maybe the solution is to catch them while they're young. Carnegie Mellon University and the National Security Agency think so. They've teamed up to create 'Toaster Wars'. It's a hacking contest, designed to engage kids and get them interested in identifying and fixing security vulnerabilities.

'Toaster' is an affectionate reference to the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica

The basic premise behind Toaster Wars is to make a future in online security seem like a good idea - by appealing to kids' instinctive urge to hack and have fun with technology.

It's a smart plan. And the model might just work. It has to, really. Cyber attacks are the battlefield of the future. The hacking Force is finely balanced. We don't want to end up outnumbered and outgunned. We don't want a brain drain to the Dark Side.

There are two things we can all do. We can be vigilant online. Download free virus protection. Create secure passwords. Delete suspicious emails.

We can also work to encourage kids to learn coding. Coding can be fun. It can be creative, and used to solve problems. The coding movement is gathering momentum, especially in the US where the likes of Gates and Zuckerberg are behind it.

But as well as making digital education fun, it's up to us as parents and siblings, aunts and uncles, teachers and mentors and role models to give kids the moral grounding.

It's up to us to show kids how to use technology. Ethically. Legally. And responsibly.

All imges via iStock Photo