They're the gangs of the Internet.
Teenagers, bored with their real existence, hit the electronic byways of the Net to tag Web sites with electronic graffiti; out for the equivalent of an electronic joy ride.
They go by such names as Artech, Nemesystm, Team Holocaust and Doodoo Krew, but security experts refer to them as ankle-biters, packet monkeys and script kiddies -- denigrating them for their lack of skill. Yet, like a pirate radio station, the so-called script kids have the power to send a message to the world, if for only a few minutes, using pre-made tools just as office workers use spreadsheets and word processors.
"It's a way to escape a lot of the bullsh*t that I get in real life," said one teenage Web vandal known on the Internet as "Artech" during a recent Internet chat with ZDNet News. "Because I don't have that much going on in my life."
Last February, that boredom led Artech to deface three pages in the Department of Transportation's Web site, where he labeled himself as "America's worst screw up." The defacement and its proximity to a spate of high-profile denial-of-service attacks reportedly earned Artech the ire of Attorney General Janet Reno and the National Infrastructure Protection Center, which added him to a wanted list of high-profile vandals that they've decided to actively pursue.
That's a full measure of notoriety for someone who claims to be a Midwestern 16-year-old and who ended his chat with ZDNet News by typing, "My dad just said, 'now' ... that's when I gotta get leaving."
Little else seems to be able to tear Artech -- who says he spends anywhere from 8- to 14-hours on his computer each day -- from his keyboard.
Despite such dedication -- or addiction, some might say -- the teenage Web vandal does not consider himself a hacker. Hackers, the digital elite of the Internet, are looked up to for their encyclopedic knowledge of how the Net works.
Artech, by contrast, tags high-profile sites with the equivalent of digital graffiti. "If (I) have to use a script kiddie method, oh, well," he said.
"I would rather be a script kiddie than use some mad skill and take down an unknown Web site."
"Nemesystm," another script kid who claims to be Dutch teenager based in the Netherlands, doesn't consider himself a hacker either.
"When I deface, I consider myself a script kiddie," he told ZDNet News during an IRC interview. "When I break into sites, not, because I find my own exploits." Nemesystm claims he and his group -- the Delinquent Hacking Corp., or DHC -- have digitally tagged more than 300 Web sites.
Boredom got the better of him, as well, he said. "The world we live (in) ... everything is the same, so incredibly boring. I feel if I deface, at least, I'm making some kind of difference."
The Dutch teenager -- who got hooked on circumventing network security when he discovered someone had placed the Back Orifice Trojan horse on his computer -- stands out from the crowd by placing poetry on Web sites that he tags. "Breathing is hard,/ when the world,/ has stopped (to) care," reads the opening stanza of "Choke," a poem posted on the recently defaced U.S. Navy Patrol Squadron's Web site.
Other script kids leave behind flashy graphics, explanations of how to fix the security hole in the defaced system, or messages written to others in 31337 (elite) speak, the lingua franca of the script kiddie sub-culture.
No matter what marks are left behind, the goal is fame, said Brian Martin, a staff member with security-scene follower Attrition.org. "They see it more as a way to get their name on the Internet than learning about computers," he said.
Yet, increasingly, the likes of Artech and Nemesystm are becoming a thorn in the sides of corporations, non-profit groups and schools -- in short, just about anyone else who has thrown up a Web site.
Data from Attrition.org shows a general increase in Web site defacements, which peaked in November 1999 at about 650 defacements and now has leveled off to around 400 defacements per month.
While businesses and the FBI are dismayed by the numbers, script kids are not serious threats, said Martin, who uses the handle "Jericho" in the online world.
"They will probably remain a big annoyance," he said. "While it does create a perception that a lot of hackers are out there doing a lot of damage, most of these kids don't have the brains to turn the exploit into a serious compromise."
While Martin sees no reason to fear the script kids, those kids see little reason to fear the real world of the FBI and investigations.
"I live by a couple simple rules," said Nemesystm. "If I can keep them, they can't do a thing til I'm an adult, but take my computer away." Those rules? Never deface any site in your own country or give information about yourself over the Internet. Don't deface a site if you are unsure of it. And, finally, "Be nice, always, so no one will hate you," he said.
Nemesystm has already seen changes among other script kids, changes that he doesn't like. "A lot of kiddies use (the simplest flaw) to get into (Windows) NT sites, and just put one line -- just to brag," he said.
The Doodoo Krew did just that when the group tagged the Spokane, Wash. Police Department's Web site earlier this month. The group left behind a simple white Web page containing five words: "doodoo krew in the y2k."
"If (the others) want to do that, fine, but it doesn't mean anything," said Nemesystm.
More than the changes in the underground community, the Dutch teenager sees changes in the public's perception of Web vandals. "I think that people will eventually learn the difference between a hacker and a defacer and leave the hackers alone," said Nemesystm.
"I'll continue defacing, not as much as I used to, but I will be around."