Teenage mastermind hacker is charged

The arrest of Ryan Cleary, who has just been charged with a string of cyber-offences, has brought online hacker groups into the spotlight. They are anarchic, rebellious and frighteningly effective.

When police from Scotland Yard knocked on her door, Rita Cleary was horrified. A nurse, living on a quiet leafy street in Essex, she couldn't imagine how she could possibly be connected to crime.

But it wasn't her they were after. The real target was sitting upstairs in his bedroom: her shy, intelligent 19-year-old son Ryan had been living a secret life as a high-profile computer hacker. Police suspected him of being the mastermind behind a shadowy internet group called LulzSec, which has launched attacks on targets including the US government, Sony, and even the CIA.

Ryan has now been charged and will face trial, but the reaction online has been one of amused scorn, rather than horror. 'Seems the glorious leader of LulzSec got arrested, it's all over now...' said a sarcastic post on the group's Twitter account. 'Wait... we're all still here! Which poor b*****d did they take down?'

So who are LulzSec, and why are police so keen to bring them to justice? The simple answer is that no one knows. The group is one of several loose-knit organisations of hackers who come together on message-boards in the darker recesses of the internet. Their names and locations are unknown. Membership is vague; with many hacks it's impossible to tell whether the culprit was part of a group or just a rogue operator using a group's name to cover his or her tracks.

But although names are hidden, and aims are confused, these hackers share a subculture that derives directly from the unique environment of the internet. Key ideas include things like 'trolling' – where hackers 'troll' or disrupt websites and chat forums for their own amusement, which they call 'lulz'. 'Memes' – elaborate in-jokes – spread fast, along with various forms of online slang with names like lolspeak or leetspeak. Humour is caustic and often crude.

Outlaws

But police forces aren't laughing. These hackers have serious expertise and aren't afraid to take down big targets. When a cyber-security firm challenged all-comers to try to hack their website, LulzSec pulled off the feat with embarrassing ease. The LulzSec attack on Sony, meanwhile, cost the company millions of dollars in lost business.

Attacks like these are regarded as serious cyber-crime. But the hackers of LulzSec don't see themselves as ordinary criminals – they're 'doing it for the lulz,' not for the money. Piratical and anarchic, they see themselves as defenders of the freedom of the internet. The online world of today is like a virtual Wild West. Are hackers like LulzSec right to see themselves as the outlaws, dangerous but exciting?

You Decide

  1. Are hackers criminals or freedom fighters?
  2. Does what happens in cyberspace matter in the real world? If so why – and how?

Activities

  1. Online communities often use invented languages. Make up your own.
  2. What do computers control in everyday life? Imagine a massive cyber-attack against all websites and computers in a country, then write a short article about what happens and how it goes down.

Some People Say...

“Don't arrest the hackers. Hire them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do hackers do it just for the 'lulz' or do they have principles?
Many do have principles, but they're quite hard to pin down. Generally, hackers are in favour of total freedom of speech. They oppose copyright and privacy laws and resist all efforts to regulate the internet.
Sounds cool!
Possibly. But hackers can cause a lot of damage when they attack a target. The Sony hack was a revenge attack for the company's legal battle with someone who was evading copyright protection on a PS3 console. But it caused a lot of damage.
How?
Thousands of people had their emails and credit card details stolen and Sony's online gaming service was shut down for weeks. Some credit card details were later used fraudulently, and email addresses sold to spammers. Lots of ordinary gamers suffered – not just Sony itself.

Word Watch

Scotland Yard
The headquarters of the Metropolitan Police.
Attacks
The easiest and most common form of hack is a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS). It involves taking down a website by swamping it with requests for information. Other hacks, aimed at gaining control over a website or accessing hidden data, are much more complicated.
Lolspeak
An invented language with unusual grammar and syntax. The first Lolspeak phrase was a joke caption for a picture of a cat: 'I can haz cheezburger?'
Leetspeak
An internet language where letters are replaced with numbers and other characters. So 'hackers' could be written 'h4><0r2'.
Caustic
Corrosive. Caustic humour is biting and harsh or offensive.

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