Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

The Secret Life of Chatroulette’s Hacker Founder

Can’t read enough about Andrey Ternovskiy, the kid who built Chatroulette? You’re in luck: This week’s New Yorker has an excellent profile of the Russian teenager.

The piece seems to have been primarily reported this winter, just as Chatroulette was becoming a phenomenon and shortly before Ternovsky lit out for the United States. If you’re interested in digital media investing, there are a few tasty tidbits, like Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson’s assistance in arranging a visa for Ternovskiy, and the programmer’s disdain for Digital Sky Technologies’ Yuri Milner.

And there’s a tiny bit about Chatroulette’s finances, at least as of a couple months ago: Since Google (GOOG) wouldn’t get cut him an AdWords check, Ternovsky’s sole source of revenue was Mamba, a Russian dating service. But that was enough: He was generating $1,500 in advertising a day, which he said covered his costs. Still, there’s not much in the way of “news” here.

But make a point of reading Julia Ioffe’s story, which paints a compelling portrait of Ternovsky’s Moscow childhood. It’s going to seem both familiar and alien to a lot of you.

He was born on April 22, 1992, less than four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and grew up in a tidy apartment in a typically dingy Moscow high-rise. His mother, Elena, is a talented mathematician who works on differential equations at the élite Moscow State University. His father, Vladimir, is an associate professor of mathematics at the same university, and dabbles in cybernetics. Their household was loving but turbulent. The couple fought and frequently separated, and Vladimir started a parallel family, an issue that was never openly discussed. (“It’s a little game we play,” Elena said of the arrangement.) Andrey retreated to his room, where, thanks to Vladimir’s belief that “the future would have something to do with computers,” there was always a machine, as up to date as the family could afford. Vladimir invested great effort in Andrey’s upbringing, engaging a Chinese tutor, a weight-lifting coach, and a chess teacher. But most of Andrey’s learning occurred alone, with his computer. He started with games, usually of the reality-simulating variety. By fourth grade, he was writing code.

Like many young Russians with programming skills, Ternovskiy turned to hacking. When he was eleven, he came upon (which translates as, a hacker forum led by a young man named Sergey (a.k.a. Terminator), who trained his followers in cyber warfare. Using the handle Flashboy, Ternovskiy soon mastered the art of the denial-of-service attack, wherein a target system is paralyzed by a mass of incoming communication requests. Next came Web-site and e-mail hacking, a service he gladly performed for girls who asked nicely. By 2007, at the age of fifteen, Ternovskiy had learned about what hackers call “social engineering”–getting what one wants through deceit or manipulation. Posing as a teacher, Ternovskiy got access to some practice tests before they were delivered to his school.

You can, and should, read the rest here.

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