Hacking My Way to Trouble at Age 14


I recently shared a personal story with my Facebook friends, and given the response, I thought it would be a good idea to share it on this site as well. I especially hope this story reaches teachers and councilors involved in K-12 (aka primary and secondary) education, but parents and possible future parents will hopefully read this, too.

Sharing this story became important to me after the suicide of Aaron Swartz, particularly after reading Timothy B. Lee's words in the Washington Post: "I worry that … America is gradually losing the sense of humor that has made it the home of the world's innovators and misfits." I realize that Aaron was an adult when he got in legal trouble, but before all that, once upon a time he was a young, bright, bored, troubled young man. That's something I can personally relate to.

And that's where my story begins:

When I was a freshman in high school in the 90s, I hacked my district's computer network. I got the top level computer administrative password, giving me access to any other computer user or system secured by that password. I did this because I was bored, and because I wanted to see if I could.

Once I had this access I poked around a bit to see what was hiding behind closed doors, and I created a few funny extra users for myself -- I don't remember the exact names, but considering I was a 14 year old boy, they were probably poop jokes.

I got a little over confident and logged into this admin account while I was in English class one afternoon. There was a special audio alert that played when you logged into that account, and the young English teacher heard it. She knew what it was, immediately called me out, and then proceeded to call the district computer manager.

My punishment was loss of computer access and privileges for a semester, and also an independent study with the district computer manager. (The loss of access was a bit of joke considering I still had the means to hack back in or use one of my bogus accounts.) The time I got to spend with that computer guy was great, and it also introduced me to other kids interested in computers. I was engaged, learning, and less bored.

I wonder today, in 2013, what would have happened to me? Would I have been expelled? Would they have called the cops? Would I have been charged with a computer crime?

If you are a teacher, aid, councilor, administrator or otherwise work at a school district, you have the power to speak out and protect kids. Kids do stupid things all the time, and kicking them out of school or giving them a criminal record seems like such a gross over reaction.

Moreover, you also have the power to have discussions about things like this before they happen. You can help ensure that your district is prepared to respond in a calm, reasoned manner rather than just have a knee jerk reaction.

Now, it is important to recognize that obviously this kind of scenario plays out much more often in other ways. Most kids who act out aren't going to do it by hacking, and I realize that. I think parents and teachers need to stick their necks out to protect schools. Nobody else is going to do it. Schools need to be an environment where kids can make mistakes and learn from them. If not at school, then where? We should have zero tolerance for zero tolerance policies. We've gotta stop treating kids like criminals.

Final thought I leave you with: Hey, current adult, remember all the stupid shit you got away with when you were a kid?