Ankit Fadia has many achievements behind him, but the most important would be making hacking seem cool.
He is an MTV Youth Icon, a Global Shaper according to the World Economic Forum and has been chosen as a Global Ambassador for Cyber Security by the Indian Government. Another title he has held for quite a while now is that of being India's youngest cyber security expert.
Ankit Fadia isn't your average ethical hacker. He was taking cyber defence systems apart at a time when most kids his age would have been happy to browse a couple of websites.
In Chennai for the launch and promotion of his latest book How to Unblock Everything on the Internet!, Ankit is as cool as a seasoned veteran. “I started out pretty young. When I was 13, I defaced the magazine Chip's website and put up a shot of my website instead. That was very exciting”. But fear and anxiety soon took over. “I realised what I had done was illegal and that it could get me arrested. So I sent a long email to the editor apologising for my actions and telling him how he could prevent a similar attack in the future”. And to his surprise, the reply he received from the editor was encouraging. “He offered me a job and that is when I realised I wanted to stick to the ethical side of hacking”.
At a time when just about everything is available online for anyone to freely access, how does his book stand out from the rest of the crowd? “Most college students and employees of companies have been facing this problem. I wanted to create a resource that is available to everyone who uses the internet. You don't have to be a techie to understand what is inside. It is simple and easy to understand.”
He also intends to keep updating the book with tips and tricks suggested by the readers themselves in later editions. “If anyone can come up with a new technique, I welcome them to send it to me so that I can publish it with due credit given to them. I'd like to think I'm starting a revolution when it comes to unblocking the internet”.
Technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that we're now being introduced to mundane, everyday objects that have their own internet connection. Telephones, televisions, refrigerators and even cars are starting to have their own IP address. But as technology advances so does the complexity of its security. “Five years ago, you had people hacking into others' desktops and laptops. Now you see people hacking into smartphones and ATMs. Another five years from now, you'll have people trying to hack into a TV or a car and try to misuse it in someway. The point I'm trying to make is that just about every device is going to be connected. And when that is the case, there is always the possibility of hacking into them. That is where the challenge lies — in securing them.”
In a country obsessed with seeing their children become either a doctor or an engineer, a budding ethical hacker must have experienced some sort of opposition back home, surely? “Not exactly. I guess I've been lucky enough to have started out young. The fact that I was still studying when I started out was a huge bonus. But I'd have to add that my parents were supportive. They didn't stop me from spending long hours in front of the computer.” The amount of support is set in proper perspective when he reveals that his parents let him fly to a seminar in between exams. Not just any exams — his Std XII Boards
In an age when people are looking to make a fast buck, legally or illegally, the lure of money in the “Dark side of the Force” must be pretty hard to resist. But Ankit disagrees. “There is actually a lot more money on the legal side. Illegal hacking is always a pain. Hacking into an account and making transactions may seem simple but money always leaves a trace. So where is the peace of mind? Besides, the demand for security is ever present.”
Another problem plaguing Indian colleges is that of blocked websites. “I studied at Stanford and we didn't have anything blocked. So are Indian colleges trying to say that Indian students are less mature and responsible compared to their American and European peers?” And with free speech coming under threat from the Government's idea of censoring social networks, is India destined to go the China way? “I find it absurd,” says Ankit. “Their argument is like saying a telecom company should be punished for an offensive SMS a subscriber sends. What the Government should understand is that social networks are assets and not liabilities. But even if they do end up going the China way, you now have a book that will help you unblock anything!”
According to Ankit, demand for ethical hackers is at an all time high. With more and more posts that need filling and a salary package that keeps increasing every year, the future is bright. Having said that, he admits it isn't always a bed of roses. “It looks easy but there is some hard work involved. You need to be ready to make a lot of sacrifices”. He also gives some advice. “When trying to convince parents, use the term ‘Cyber Security Consultant' ”.
With the serious stuff out of the way, what does Ankit consider to be his greatest achievement? Surprisingly, it isn't something related to his profession. “I first went abroad in 2002 and being a fan of travel, I resolved to visit a 100 countries in 10 years. I'm at 97 right now and I'll reach the 100 mark this March. This is what I'd like to tell my grandkids”. And what next for Ankit Fadia? “Now that my book has been released, I'm looking at a new TV show. I also hope to write a novel and translate that to the big screen. And finally I'd like to open a restaurant”. A restaurant? “You don't find authentic Lebanese in Mumbai, do you?”
Tips for Internet users
Always have a Firewall enabled.
Purchase, don't pirate, a strong Anti Virus software so that you get constant updates.
Install an Anti Spyware too.
Have a strong password that includes a combination of alphabets, numbers and special characters.
Don't log into your accounts on a public computer.
Tips for wannabes
You need to know at least one programming language.
You need to be strong in Networking.
It helps to know your way around a UNIX system.
Most importantly, learn to think like a criminal so that you can negate his actions.
Sharan is a final year B.E student at RMK College of Engineering and Technology.