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Hacker had just enough knowledge, not enough direction
Eighteen-year-old Jeffrey Parson begins this week confined to his parents' home in Hopkins, prevented from any contact with computers. Parson was arrested Friday on charges he modified and spread a computer worm that slowed Internet traffic around the globe this summer. If Parson indeed did what is alleged, his work is unlikely to win him much respect inside or outside the computer hacker community. Far from a mastermind, experts say Parson is just an especially unlucky example that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

St. Paul, Minn. — In the end, the most notable thing about Parson may not be his tinkering with the Blaster worm, creating a version called Blaster.B and an accompanying program known as "penis32." Matt Gair is a Minnesota native who founded Melior, a Dallas company that designs systems and software to fight worms and viruses. He was not impressed with Parson's work.

"It doesn't take a whole lot of brain power in order to manipulate the code and identify vulnerabilities," Gair says. "First-year computer science majors have enough know-how to do this."

Instead, the most notable thing about Parson will probably be that he got caught. He apparently gave little thought to covering his tracks. Infected computers registered themselves with his website. One version of the virus was actually named "teekid," Parson's hacker code-name.

Still, it's no surprise federal officials were trumpeting the arrest of even such an easy target. Officials say while some 63,000 viruses have wreaked havoc on the Internet, only one American has done prison time in relation to any of them. Parson faces a maximum 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine.

They kind of get mesmerized with how far they can go, and they want to get to the next level, and ultimately they get in trouble.
- Matt Gair, Co-Founder, Meloir

Gair says the genuine cyber-terrorists, who might set out to bring down government or financial systems, are likely to remain at large.

"The adult hacker who is politically or monetarily motivated isn't going to do something that stupid, basically," Gair says. "They're going to be really incognito, they've got a real method to their madness, and they certainly don't want to get caught. These kids, I don't think, quite understand what the ramifications are. I don't even think they understand what kind of damage they're causing."

Gair says young people still learning right from wrong may see computer programming something like a video-game. "They kind of get mezmerized with how far they can go, and they want to get to the next level, and ultimately they get in trouble," he says.

Ethics is a part of the curriculum for the 300 students studying computer programming at Brown College in Mendota Heights, according to Vice President of Operations Kevin Sanderson.

"Discussions are held as to the appropriate use of the knowledge that they're gaining, and how that use can help society and help businesses," Sanderson says. "But also (there's) the discussion of tampering, of creating or causing viruses, of creating of causing programs that would cause havoc to systems. There is an ethical situation they're made aware of, and we teach that and we talk about it."

Sanderson says they do see kids whose intentions are less than pure. A few have been suspended or expelled during his 12-year tenure at the school.

"We've had students that have had hacker software, or cracking software, where the attempts of those softwares is to break into networks and cause damage," Sanderson says. "And when we've found that, we've taken quick and appropriate action with students to help them understand, to make them understand, that that is not allowable or acceptable."

University of Minnesota Computer Science Professor John Riedl teaches summer programming workshops for high school students. He says young people like Jeffrey Parson need to experience that computer programming is much more fun and rewarding as a tool for good than for evil.

"You show them a path where (you say), 'Look, you're very skilled, you've got some talent, here are some things you can do, and if you do these kinds of things you're going to get stroked, people are going to be impressed and you're going to be able to make a living along the way,'" Riedl says. "They get excited by that. That's more of a turn-on than, 'Well, I can get some people I never see who call me by a hacker code name to be impressed with me.'"

Riedl says the kids who get into trouble are not necessarily bad kids. "They're kids who don't yet know their way, who are worried about whether they really are very talented -- 'Do I really have what it takes to make it?' And so they kind of go out and do this kind of thing to make a splash. And, I've got to tell you, as a father I have personally a little bit of a problem with the way the FBI is planning to make an example out of the kid."

Riedl worries the high-profile punishment of a small potato like Parson could take focus away from the countless other culprits still out there.

But perhaps more important, he knows hackers can be redeemed. He recalls a student who touted his exploits with a pro-hacker screed in the campus newspaper. Riedl took him under his wing and brought him in on a research project. The student went on to found his own high-tech company. He recently took his old professor out to lunch, to celebrate making his first million.

"He's a kid who could very easily have wound up getting caught and making a mistake like this," Riedl says. "Instead, he gets into the research project, he gets excited, he's a very talented young man, he goes off and founds this company. There are many paths in life and sometimes it just take the right push or the right steering."

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