: : Why do they do it? Because they get a return from doing it. It's the profit motive; as Gee will point out; in the case of a script kiddy, they derive "profit" from boosting their own egos; even if it's not a fiscal profit.
: OK, I'll accept that. A psychological power over others and profit derived from that to their egos is their motive.
There's also some cachet in the community; being able to break any security is seen as a measure of competence. It's community prestige in a similar manner to that of being a master catburglar.
Reputations spread and are frequently unrelated to actual national power bases; so, for example, Russian hackers (as a rule) are damn good at coming up with inventive solutions to problems. US hackers are actually far down the list of cracking specialists, although they produce some good software. And you should never, ever say nasty things about the Tamil Tigers online; unless you really want your online presence to be destroyed.
(I'm serious about that. The TTs are hard bastards and they can destroy you.)
: Why is this sort of thing attractive to so many people? I don't know for sure but I guess that most of these hackers are young. At least that's what the stories in newspapers seem to indicate.
The newspapers are responsible for more hot air and flammery than useful information; the guy behind the Melissa virus was in his 30s.
It's not really accurate to say that dark-side hackers are any particular age-group; there are 60-year-old ones as well as 14-year-olds. It's more a sort of juvenile thing; when growing your hacking skills, there comes a period called the larval stage of a hacker when they will typically find themselves having to prove their skills to their peers; typically by engaging in what the Jargon File calls wheel wars; an attempt to prove your mastery over your fellows by disrupting them.
It's normal, to a certain extent; I remember my days back at University when one of the sadder members of my class turned my keyboard Greek remotely for a joke (so it typed Greek characters when you tried to input text); someone else changed his wallpaper to hardcore porn (which would have resulted in his account being deleted); he returned the favour by using rlogin and xlock to lock up their Unix terminal remotely. I remember this same character cracking into NASA at one point; it's all part of the normal learning curve; analogous to playground fights and going places you're not supposed to go.
(The same person was earning about $100k per year in a large computing company last time I heard)
Most people do it to a lesser or greater extent as part of the growth stage; I didn't do it much, but that's more because I didn't want to than because I couldn't. However, some people enjoy the power it gives them; and there are a hell of a lot of people out there who don't have a science degree and a background in Unix; as I've said; people without the knowledge are second-hand citizens. There are people who like to demonstrate their power over others; this has been true since I first hit the 'net in 1992 and is even more true now that nearly anyone can access it.
To recap; it's more a stage of development in the usual geek than an age thing; some people find it to be their preferred destination and never grow beyond it, but this is not age-specific.
: Is this the suburban version of ghetto thugs preying on the weaker members of their culture? There isn't much difference in principle between a hacker who screws with a persons personal info. and a thug who robs someone.
Remember the difference here between a cracker and a hacker; a hacker writes programs, whether good or bad; a cracker merely tries to break security to access data they aren't supposed to.
To quote the Jargon File on cracking:
"Use of both these neologisms reflects a strong revulsion against the theft and vandalism perpetrated by cracking rings. While it is expected that any real hacker will have done some playful cracking and knows many of the basic techniques, anyone past larval stage is expected to have outgrown the desire to do so except for immediate, benign, practical reasons (for example, if it's necessary to get around some security in order to get some work done)."
: Perhaps, given the potential for real harm, a hacker is much more culpable then a street thug.
Anyone who uses their computer to wield power over others is doing so because they can and because they have no compunction about it. In this, they are effectively acting like street thugs or robber barons. However, you can defend yourself against cracks and worms by practising security until it becomes second nature to you; you do at least have the power to defend yourself here, unlike the physical world.