Spy Game: Kids for Tricks

An estimated quarter of a million children -- the world's tragic child soldiers -- are fighting in wars all over the world, living a life no child should ever have to lead.

But across the planet, another crop of children, living in affluence in Cupertino, California, or Knightsbridge in London, or Berlin, are being recruited as child soldiers. They won’t bear arms. They won’t nudge from their posts – usually in their parents’ back bedrooms. On Halloween, while their peers are wearing goblin costumes and going from door to door, their families might regard them as hiding in their bedrooms and staying away from trouble.

But so you thought. They may be in much bigger trouble than you could ever imagine – they could be on a Wanted List from intelligence agencies – for hire. But in their teen years, are they capable of making the moral decisions to take up spying, any more than a 12 year old peering over the sights of a Kalashnikov in Sierra Leone?

MI6 and MI5 want them. The CIA and NSA are also interested in them. And very soon, every serious spy agency in the world will be seeking to scoop up the local whiz kids in the neighborhood: to work as spies.

British foreign secretary William Hague revealed last week the government would be looking to recruit some 100 apprentices for the intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the nation's eavesdropping service hub.

The preferred candidates are the so-called X-Box generation kids, many without a university degree but with the well-honed social media and combative interactive gaming skills deemed aptly suited to counter increasingly devastating cyber threats.

“It will be the young innovators of this generation who will help keep our country safe in years to come against threats which are every bit as serious as some of those confronted in the Second World War,” said Hague in his speech at Bletchley Park, the former secretive code-breaking hub north of London during World War II.

In a similar move, the National Security Agency said several months ago that the US is gearing up cyber-savvy kids for secret intelligence operations through a new cyber program at the new Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations of four selected universities – Dakota State University; Naval Postgraduate School; Northeastern University; and University of Tulsa.

These may well be great initiatives. After all, cyber-crime is often cited as one of the fastest growing transgressions of this modern digital era, which opens the floodgates for those capable to exploit those innocent through the speed and anonymity of the Internet.

So if you are the desk-bound types who can code malware to infiltrate a computer network, pry on emails, SMS and phone messages, or even stop a DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack, you are a hot and wanted property. Age is not a variable in the equation. It just turns out that kids fit the bills.

Who will these new adolescent cyber spies be fighting against? Kids themselves– and no kidding.

Meet Cosmo, the legend – also known as “CosmoTheGod”.

For the record, Cosmo has conducted cyber attacks against major organizations like NASDAQ and the CIA. He can break into accounts like Amazon, Apple, AOL, PayPal, etc. He has also posted online hundreds of thousands of active credit card details after hacking a billing agency.

Feared even by his peers within the hacking community, he was eventually arrested in June following a multi-state FBI sting on credit card fraud, according to a recent report by IDG Connect.

But Cosmo is only just 15, living with his mom and grandmother, who describe him as a “good boy and always at home” type of kid. His infamous hacking career began when he discovered a trick to beat his opponents at online X-Box games, simply by changing a script on their IP address.

Yet Cosmo is just the sort of geek with the necessary skills to bring global institutions to their knees from the comfort of his bedroom. But the most disturbing thing is, he is a different breed.

He is not the typical Dr. Evil, a criminal mastermind type looking to exploit his skills and amass wealth, power or even recognition. He is not even a delinquent looking to nick a wallet, break into a shop or joyride a car in the neighborhood. Cosmo is just a bored computer whiz kid looking for amusement raiding through the cyberspace. For sheer joy, fun and yes, a joyride of some sorts in the digital sphere.

The profile of hackers has indeed changed over time as more people learn to hack, either for the sake of self-amusement or self-gratification. One can easily find on YouTube endless online tutorials on various hacking and sophisticated computer skills. And the semi-delinquent X-Box generation kids like Cosmo are obviously best positioned to take advantage of the situation to ply and exhibit their trade.

So perhaps it makes sense that the spymasters are now recognizing and appreciating their value. But kids like Cosmo are just one aspect of cyber threats. As malware becomes increasingly more common, the authorities are now changing their approach from being defensive to being outright offensive.

The US Air Force, for example, is reportedly spending millions to hack the computer networks of opponents to “destroy, deny, degrade, disrupt, deceive, corrupt or usurp” their ability to use the Internet to their advantage.

Global conflicts used to be fought out by ammunition-loaded soldiers. They were then settled by the push of buttons not so long ago. If these spy agencies have their way, stealthy computer viruses and code-breaking computers will be the order of the day for the foreseeable future, for conventional wars and espionage wars alike. Just kids against kids with their very own masterly geek tradecraft.

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Email: soovans@gmail.com)