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Have mouse, will travel (the Net)

Teen-ager probes Web weaknesses to help give firms security

Thursday, June 01, 2000

By Bob Starzynski, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The proliferation of computer viruses -- including last month's I Love You virus -- leaves most of us wondering if there is a morsel of goodness among young computer hackers.

 
 

Enter Michael Righi, an 18-year-old part-time college student and full-time Web developer for Stargate Industries.

Off the clock, Righi sits in his Oakland apartment in the wee hours, moonlighting as a computer security hacker, out to find weaknesses in the systems of companies. But he is not an evildoer, trying to corrupt the Internet. Rather, he is a do-gooder, helping companies understand their security holes and offering advice on patching such holes. For free.

Righi is a pro bono hacker, a volunteer night watchman of the cyber world.

"I'm not against making money," he said. "But I don't want to be too opportunistic."

In late April, Righi was fishing around on the Web site for Quest Technologies, a computer networking company in Marlboro, Mass. Through his probing, he was able to access several passwords, including one for the company's Cisco router. He also found confidential information that gave him complete access to all of the files on Quest's network, including all e-mail messages. And, had he felt inclined, he could have altered the company's Web site completely.

Instead of terrorizing the company or blackmailing it into payment, Righi sent it a couple of e-mail messages to alert officials to the problem and to suggest remedies. Two hours later, the company responded with a thank-you note and promptly closed the security hole.

 
E-commerce worker Michael Righi, 18, has turned a penchant for hacking into a defensive specialty for businesses. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

Computer security experts command more than $100,000 a year for such scouting and advice. Even the smaller Internet-related companies easily spend more than $250,000 a year to keep their sites secure. Yet Righi offered up a sample of the same services to Quest -- gratis.

"It's just something fun to do after work," he said, picking at a tuna melt one recent day while on his lunch break. The slim, sporty-dressed teen-ager goes nowhere without his cell phone (which is usually clipped to his hip) or his Palm Pilot (the latest version, which offers Internet capabilities).

Righi first came to the attention of the public last year when he found similar problems with the Web site of Cobalt Networks of Mountain View, Calif., and alerted the company to the problems. His good Samaritan deed attracted the attention of the media, including the Post-Gazette and Wired magazine. It also helped him land his current job with Stargate. And it brought about a consulting opportunity with Cobalt, for which he did get paid.

Righi is not your average college freshman. He is taking a part-time course load at the University of Pittsburgh, where he guesses he will graduate in six or seven years.

He works a full-time day job at Stargate. Most of his time is spent at work or in class or prowling on the Web -- with a little time left over for his girlfriend and for keeping up with the Penguins.

"He is balancing so many things," said Jonathan Rosenson, director of strategic initiatives at Stargate and the person who first tracked down Righi after the Cobalt debacle last year. "Right now, he can handle work and school and a personal life. But some day soon, he may have to make a decision to focus more on one thing."

Righi may still be three years shy of the legal drinking age, but he fits in well at Stargate, where many of the employees are in their early 20s. Rosenson, a midlevel manager, is 23.

 
 
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While Righi has done a standout job of strategically drawing publicity for his good works, he is not unique with his pro bono efforts.

"I've seen it a number of times -- kids finding security problems for companies," said Aaron Hughes, an early employee with Quest Technologies who still does technical work for the company. "Some do it out of boredom. Some do it as a form of job hunting. Some see themselves as part of an Internet militia."

Although Righi says he does his good deeds to make the Internet a safer place, he also has landed a job and some consulting work because of his efforts and the subsequent attention he has received.

"When I saw the story [in the Post-Gazette] on him last year, I tracked him down to see if he was interested in working with us," Rosenson said. "He had 20 other offers already on the table from companies around the country."

Sophisticated public relations aside, Righi has seemed destined for business success all along.

He first got the entrepreneurial bug at age 8, when he started his own magic show business. Rather than doing shows for neighborhood kids that involved dime-store tricks, Righi invested in real rabbits and doves and did shows for as many as 600 people at a time. He charged $50 for a half-hour show and recruited his mother as an assistant. After getting out of that business five years later, he starting playing around with the family computer and quickly took an interest in programming. He created and sold his own software products while he took a peripheral interest in hacking.

But unlike with his current efforts, his early hacking days were not quite puritanical.

"I didn't do anything too malicious," he started, sheepishly. "But I did go into some Web sites and change some pictures and words. And I got the passwords of some teachers at my school and read their e-mail."

In order to get the teachers' passwords, he set up a program that ran every word in the dictionary through the password box for an e-mail address -- catching the teachers who used common, everyday words as their passwords.

About the time that he started getting bored with high school and let his grades slip, Righi discovered his conscience. "If you keep breaking in, you'll eventually get caught," he said. "You have nothing to gain by malicious hacking."

With his ways changed for the better, Righi has the right chemistry to become a leader of the new Internet economy. Eventually, he would like to own a computer-related business. He's reluctant to decide on a market niche at this point because his interests change frequently, depending on the latest innovations. If he were setting up his company now, he says he would focus on the wireless Internet market or Java development.

"Whatever he does, he will be extremely successful," said Stargate's Rosenson. "He has the right combination of technology and interpersonal skills. I can't begin to tell you how valuable that is."



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