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Teen computer hacking: Harmless fun or federal crime?

Parents in Florida towns and cities are not strangers to the online mischief their teens may cause. Precocious computer wizards, teens often hack into their parents' social media accounts for fun, then startle mom or dad with some personal details a parent may not want to include in the family history.

At the same time, parents are understandably proud of their budding computer expert. They see a bright future ahead for their son or daughter at MIT, followed by a high-profile information technology career with a major global company. After all, a pair of unknown hackers—Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—earned legend status when they founded Apple, Inc. Bill Gates, no slouch at hacking, went on to become the luminary co-founder of Microsoft.

The golden days of hacking

50 years ago, a pair of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students figured out AT&T's switching protocol. By whistling the right notes, they made free long-distance calls. Wozniak and Jobs quickly designed a small box that emitted the correct sounds and, in true entrepreneurial spirit, sold the device to other students. Those innocent days are long gone. While most kids started out hacking for fun, each successive technological improvement allowed them more access to restricted information. Teens, lured by the admiration of their peers, hacked into increasingly high-level security areas.  

Teen masterminds become federal criminals

A new generation of teen hackers was born. A 1983 movie featured a teen who nearly sparked nuclear war by hacking into a U.S. military system. The film's popularity inspired real-life teen hackers to duplicate the feat. Six Milwaukee teens hacked into a U.S. nuclear weapon facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The U.S. Congress saw the coding on the wall. In 1986, spurred by national fear, Congress enacted the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Wise parents no longer indulgently view teen computer hacking as harmless fun. Today, computer-hacking teens are, in the eyes of the law, junior criminals, subject to serious penalties and lifetime consequences. Even young teen hackers commit shocking crimes: A thirteen-year-old and his friends hacked into U.S. banks, military computers, IBM and General Electric. The U.S. court system gave the boy 45 years in prison. He bargained a plea deal, but his story shows the U.S. government is serious about hardcore penalties for hackers of any age. Other teens respectively hacked into the Pentagon, accessed a North Korean nuclear installation that nearly caused a war with the United States, and one precocious youth forced NASA to shut down when he hacked the International Space Station.

A Florida parent should contact a professional for help in planning a criminal defense strategy for teens under investigation by the federal government for illicit hacking activity. Preparation will go a long way toward protecting young people who may not realize the grave risk they undertake when their hacking fun turns into jail time, a criminal record, massive fines, loss of college admission and difficulty with finding a job later in life. If parents think their brilliant teen hacker can score a lucrative career with the CIA, they may want to think again. Those fairy-tale endings are also long gone.

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