This teenager hacked into the outfit charged with protecting companies like Sony, Universal, and Activision from online piracy—the most daring exploit yet in the escalating war between fans and corporate giants. Guess which side is winning.
The first time Ethan broke into MediaDefender, he had no idea what he had found. It was his Christmas break, and the high schooler was hunkered down in the basement office of his family's suburban home. The place was, as usual, a mess. Papers and electrical cords covered the floor and crowded the desk near his father's Macs and his own five-year-old Hewlett-Packard desktop. While his family slept, Ethan would take over the office, and soon enough he'd start taking over the computer networks of companies around the world. Exploiting a weakness in MediaDefender's firewall, he started poking around on the company's servers. He found folder after folder labeled with the names of some of the largest media companies on the planet: News Corp., Time Warner, Universal.
Since 2000, MediaDefender has served as the online guard dog of the entertainment world, protecting it against internet piracy. When Transformers was about to hit theaters in summer 2007, Paramount turned to the company to stop the film's spread online. Island Records counted on MediaDefender to protect Amy Winehouse's Back to Black album, as did NBC with 30 Rock. Activision asked MediaDefender to safeguard games like Guitar Hero; Sony, its music and films; and World Wrestling Entertainment, its pay-per-view steel-cage championships and pudding-wrestling matches.
MediaDefender's main stalking grounds are the destinations that help people find and download movies and music for free. Sites such as the Pirate Bay and networks like Lime Wire rely on peer-to-peer, or P2P, software, which allows users to connect with one another and easily share files. (See what movies, television shows, and music are most downloaded.) MediaDefender monitors this traffic and employs a handful of tricks to sabotage it, including planting booby-trapped versions of songs and films to frustrate downloaders. When the company's tactics work, someone trying to download a pirated copy of Spider-Man 3 might find the process interminable, or someone grabbing Knocked Up might discover it's nothing but static. Other MediaDefender programs interfere with the process pirates use to upload authentic copies. When Ethan hacked into the company, at the end of 2006, MediaDefender was finishing an exceptional year: Its revenue had more than doubled, to $15.8 million, and profit margins were hovering at about 50 percent.
Ethan and I had first started talking over an untraceable prepaid phone that he carried with him. He eventually agrees to speak in person, as long as I protect his identity. (Ethan is a pseudonym.) We meet after school, in a bookstore that he says is near his house. He hands me a flash drive containing documents that I was later able to independently verify as internal, unpublished information belonging to MediaDefender. He also pulls out a well-creased sheet of paper bearing my name, the first five digits of my Social Security number, a few pictures of me, and addresses going back 10 years. "I had to check," he says. Then he asks me about another Roth he has been researching; it turns out to be my brother. "I was just starting to dig in to him," he says. "There's a lot there." Ethan is a handsome kid, with broad shoulders and a preppy style, and is unfailingly polite, cleaning up the table after I buy him a coffee and patiently walking me through the intricate details of Microsoft security procedures.