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The Typical Trickery of Teen Hackers

September 3, 2009 Back to Articles
Summary: In our increasingly digital world, many teens are learning how to get around online parental controls. Check out these typical teen tricks for getting past protective settings, and learn how to stop them.
What Are Teens "Hacking"?
For three years, Dshocker, as he was known, carried out attacks on tens of thousands of computers in the U.S. until the Boston police caught up with him in 2008. He was only 17 years old. During his crime spree, Dshocker had stolen credit card information and broken into corporate computer systems. The courts sentenced him to 11 months in a juvenile detention center.

Across the world in New Zealand, another teen hacker was busily infiltrating computers around the world. As the leader of an international crime ring, Owen Thor Walker led a group that hacked into more than a million computers in order to skim $20.4 million from private bank accounts. When he was caught in 2007, he was 18 years old. Walker is now a cyber crime consultant.
While these stories are shocking, they are thankfully relatively rare. Most teens are simply content to use their “hacking” skills on the family computer to increase their online freedom. Such tech-savvy teens have figured out ways to get past parental controls, reset passwords, install software, and other activities frustrating to parents.

Fortunately, these situations are solvable. Symantec’s Internet Safety Advocate, Marian Merritt offers these insights on how teens are able to get around parental controls, and some practical advice on how to prevent it in the first place.
Q. We set up parental controls on our computer, but my son found a way to use the router to change the settings. How did this happen and what can we do to prevent it from happening again?

A. It sounds like your son may have gotten access to the manual for the router (which he could have downloaded from the Internet). From the manual, he would have learned how to reset the password to the default. From there, he could have changed settings and turned off the filtering you’d put in place.
What you have here is an issue of administrative privileges. Anyone with administrative access on a computer can change settings and install software. Your best bet to avoid a repeat is to create accounts for each user in the household and set different levels of access. For example, the parents get to download software, the kids don’t. If the kids want to purchase an MP3 or an upgrade for their videogame software, they have to come to you. Most importantly, don’t forget to log out of your account when you’re done using the machine.
Q. We don’t want my teenager to view inappropriate images online, so we blocked his access to specific sites. To get around this, he searches for other sites we haven’t blocked. What can we do to keep him from viewing these images?

A. The simple answer is, not much -- that is, if you’re going to rely exclusively on blocking sites. One solution is to do the reverse of what you’re doing now by setting up a "white list." A white list is a list of sites that a child is allowed to see -- as opposed to blocking which is a list of sites the child is not allowed to see. While the white list approach is generally used for younger children, it could be effective in your case too.
Where software solutions fall short, responsible parenting needs to come in. Talk to your son to better understand his behavior. It’s also important to discuss the family rules on viewing online content and guide him in his online activities.
Q. After a few days of not realizing it, I discovered that my teenager had figured out my computer password and logged in, resetting the parental controls we had installed. How did this happen?

A. One of the easiest ways to gain access to someone’s login is to click the “Forgot your password?” link that appears on most login screens. Password information is then sent to the email address attached to the account. If the email address was yours, your teenager may have known or figured out the password to your email and retrieved the password to the parental controls. Once logged in, settings can be changed to any level desired.
The lesson here is to never use a password that anyone can guess, especially those who know you. This is a standard of online safety. The first step is to change all of your passwords. I propose this formula: Take a phrase that has meaning to you, like “I graduated Grant High School in ’81.” Turn that into “igghs81.” Now, for Facebook login, put an “F” in front of it (“Figghs81”), for Google, put a “G” in front of it (“Gigghs81”) and so on. That way you have a complex password that is different for each site yet something you can remember.
Q. I discovered that my teenager changed the Web filtering through another browser he installed. How was he able to do that?

A. This is also a problem of administrative access. Without such privileges, the child would not be able to install software. By creating separate user accounts for your home computers, you can ensure that only the parents have the ability to install software such as this other browser.
There’s no doubt parenting teenagers is harder than parenting little ones who are just so thrilled to be online and emailing. Older ones are learning to establish privacy and identity -- that’s a good thing. Your role is to help guide them away from things that may damage their online reputation and help them have a safe experience online.

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