Josiah’s father would take him along to their church’s “car ministry,” where they’d repair congregants’ cars for free and refurbish donated vehicles for missionaries. Josiah would stand in the corner of the shop, waiting for the foreman to give him a task, like reassembling a car’s broken water pump.
Josiah reveled in impressing the adults with his technical abilities. But he was always drawn to computers, cleaner and more logical than any car component. “You give it an input, you get an output,” he says. “It’s something that gave me more control.” After years of vying for time on his family’s computer, he got his own PC when he was close to his 13th birthday, a tower with a Pentium III processor.
Around the same time, Josiah’s brother, seven years older than him, figured out how to reprogram cell phones so they could be transferred from one telephone carrier to another. Josiah’s brother started to perform this kind of unlocking as a service, and soon it was so in demand that their father used it to launch a computer repair business.
By the time he was 15, Josiah would work in the family’s shop after school, setting up Windows for customers and installing antivirus software on their machines. From there, he got curious about how HTML worked, then began teaching himself to program, then started exploring web-hosting and network protocols and learning Visual Basic.
As wholesome as Josiah’s childhood was, he felt at times that he was being raised “on rails,” as he puts it, shepherded from homeschooling to church to the family computer shop. But the only rules he really chafed against were those set by his mother to limit his computer time or force him to earn internet access through schoolwork and household chores. Eventually, on these points, she gave up. “I sort of wore her out,” he says. She relented in part because a hands-on understanding of the minutiae of computing was quickly becoming essential to the family business. Josiah, now with near-unlimited computer time, dreamed of a day when he’d use his skills to start a business of his own, just as his brother had.
In fact, like most kids his age, much of Josiah’s time at the keyboard was spent on games. One of them was called Uplink. In it, the protagonist is a freelance hacker who can choose between two warring online movements, each of which has built a powerful piece of self-spreading code. One hacker group is bent on using its creation to destroy the internet. The other on stopping them. Josiah, not the sort of kid to do things in half measures, played through the game on both sides.
immersing himself in that cyberpunk simulation—and learning about famous hackers like Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and Kevin Mitnick, who had evaded the FBI in a cat-and-mouse pursuit in the 1990s—cultivated in Josiah’s teenage mind a notion of hacking as a kind of secret, countercultural craft. The challenge of understanding technical systems better than even their designers appealed to him. So did the subversive, exploratory freedom it offered to a teenager with strict Christian parents. When he googled a few hacking terms to learn more, he ended up on a site called Hack Forums, a free-for-all of young digital misfits: innocent explorers, wannabes, and full-blown delinquents, all vying for clout and money.
On the internet of 2011, the most basic trick in the playbook of every unskilled hacker was the denial-of-service attack, a brute-force technique that exploits a kind of eternal, fundamental limitation of the internet: Write a program that can send enough junk data at an internet-connected computer, and you can knock it offline.