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Child hackers

2014-11-03 08:55 fmprc.gov.cn Web Editor: Qian Ruisha
Budding young hackers Zhao Pinhan (left), Yan Jun (middle), and Xiao Yuanan. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Budding young hackers Zhao Pinhan (left), Yan Jun (middle), and Xiao Yuanan. Photo: Li Hao/GT

China's young programmers are teaching Internet security experts new tricks

Exploiting a security weakness in one of China's major telecommunications networks, 14-year-old Xiao Yuanan spammed his friend's cell phone with more than 10,000 messages in less than five minutes, causing the phone to shut down.

"It was just a prank, but it shows what I can do," boasted Xiao, a student at the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China.

Xiao is among a number of precocious young Chinese hackers that have attracted media attention in recent months for their mischievous feats. At this year's China Internet Security Conference in September, Internet security company Qihoo360 revealed that around 200 hackers under the age of 18 had participated in an open initiative run by the company to identify security weaknesses in websites.

The same month, the Beijing Times ran a feature about 13-year-old Wang Zhengyang, a student at the High School Attached to Tsinghua University, who they described as "China's youngest hacker." Wang managed to bamboozle the security system of a major Internet retailer, changing the price of one of their products from 2,500 yuan ($409) to just 0.01 yuan.

"These children are very creative," said Lin Wei, deputy director of Qihoo360's network security attack and defense lab. "Their way of thinking about problems is more flexible than adult learners, so they can sometimes find security loopholes that others cannot. Young hackers are a force to be reckoned with."

Hacking for fun

Although hacking has frequently been portrayed as a sordid criminal activity, China's young hackers - at least those that have come to the media's attention - harbor no malicious intentions beyond causing common mischief.

Xiao started teaching himself how to hack out of curiosity about how computers worked - and the desire to keep himself amused during a computer class at school.

"My first hacking experience was when I was 8 years old," he said. "Back then, the computers we used had a shared folder that only the teachers could access using a password. I heard that there were movies in there, so I did an Internet search about how to crack passwords. Eventually, I managed to crack it, and after that, I was able to watch movies during computer class."

Xiao quickly bored of the movies he found in the folder, but found himself increasingly fascinated by the world of computer programming.

In addition to pulling pranks on his friends and hacking into other people's computers in order to watch movies or play video games, Xiao has used his hacking skills in order to supplement his academic studies.

"I found an online English-Chinese dictionary that was really good, but the operating speed of the dictionary was really slow because of a lagging server," said Xiao. "So I hacked into the system, downloaded the entire vocabulary library, and made a dictionary of my own that can run at high speed."

Bolstering defenses

Some young hackers have been inspired to learn their trade specifically in order to bolster the defenses of computer networks and websites against malignant threats.

Zhao Pinhan, a 13-year-old second-year student at the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China, has used his skills to help websites identify potential threats and develop ways to counter malicious activity.

In July, travel website Ctrip invited computer programmers to submit malicious code to an authorized third party website in order to identify weaknesses in its security. Hackers would be given monetary rewards for finding deficiencies in Ctrip's defences.

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