Meet the 17-year-old who breaks cybersecurity news
William Turton was transcribing interviews at The Daily Dot office when he got information that Planned Parenthood's website had been hacked. It was 8:22 p.m. on a Sunday evening. He started reporting. Around six hours later, he got another tip that New York Magazine's website was facing a cyber attack. He jumped on that as well. Sitting in an empty workspace, Turton had kept the lights off so that he could manage his headache. He went on to report on both the stories into the night and published them at 8 a.m. that morning. He was the first one to get the news out. Turton covers politics and hacking for The Daily Dot. He is also a 17-year-old high school student.
Based in a suburb in Virginia, Turton got into journalism at the age of 14 when he started writing about gaming.
"I had always wanted to write about politics and hacking. But the only way anyone would really take me seriously, I figured, is if I wrote about video games," said Turton.
He started writing for free just to get his name out there. Next, he got a gig at CBS Interactive on a vertical called onGamers. After spending some time at the organization as a reporter, he moved to The Daily Dot. He was 16. He started writing for their eSports sections, continuing with gaming as his beat.
Then, a hacking group called Lizard Squad took the Playstation and Xbox Live offline.
"I knew I had to get an interview with them," said Turton. He contacted every single person he knew who might have a connection, until he actually got to the spokesperson for the group. He published an interview with the group a day after the hack happened.
"That was pretty much it then."
The scoop enabled Turton to transition to the politics desk. Turton has spent the summer in New York City, working at The Daily Dot office. He'll be heading home just in time for school to begin.
'In some cases, be more skeptical when they are cooperative.'
How do you cover hacking? It's just like any other beat, Turton said, and a lot of it means building relationships with hackers and speaking to them regularly. According to Andrew Couts, one of his editors, that is Turton's strength.
"He maintains relationships with sources constantly to find out what they are doing. I think that a lot of reporters can take a lesson from him just in terms of cultivating sources," said Couts.
Turton also understands the technicalities behind the methods of attacks. Since he was always into computers, that came to him naturally. Many of his sources use advanced forms of communication and encryption to hide their real identity, so being accessible with those technologies also helps.
What is tricky about covering a beat such as cybersecurity is the verification process.
"William's sources are definitely people who you want to be skeptical of no matter now cooperative they are," said Couts. "In some cases, be more skeptical when they are cooperative."
The first step is to get a confirmation from any potential victim. If they are unable to provide that, as was the case with the Planned Parenthood attack, they look into further evidence. If the attackers say that X would happen at a certain time and it indeed takes place, that means that the ones claiming the hack are actually involved.
"But nothing is a golden ticket," says Turton.
In the case of Planned Parenthood, Turton obtained evidence from the hackers - certain email addresses and a website database that the team took to independent cyber security experts. Turton and his editors were able to independently confirm the hack, "which is why we ran a story before Planned Parenthood was able to confirm the attack," said Couts.
'You don't need anyone's permission to do journalism.'
After he published both stories, Turton waited to speak his editors at the office. He hadn't slept all night or eaten. But he had an interview at 9 a.m. that morning with two prisoners who were granted clemency by the president.
"I had called something like 30 prisons to get those interviews, so I was really excited."
He did those and left for home at around 11 a.m., almost missing his subway stop on his way back.
Turton hasn't made good money until recently, he said.
"I recently got a raise due to my scoops and it's actually quite good now, competitive with people who are older," he said.
His advice to young journalists: "Just write and read," said Turton. "You don't need anyone's permission to do journalism."
His editor echoes the sentiment.
"Get the basics of what a journalist does and improve your writing skills, improve your reporting skills," said Couts.
Twitter has been a great resource as well.
"It's funny that many of the relationships that I've built, and the opportunities I have had, have come though Twitter," said Turton. "It is really amazing to me."
For instance, he is currently living with a tech reporter in New Jersey - someone he met via Twitter. His first job at CBS also came along via the social media platform. However, there are no Twitter lists of hackers that he has been tracking.
"There needs to be some sort of secrecy around that," said Turton. Hackers are also famous for bumping their Twitter account every other day or so. "I get followed by a random account and will be like who is this. And then someone will actually say - oh hey that is me. It'll actually be a hacker I have interacted with previously."
His editor admits that he hasn't worked with a 17-year-old before. However, his age isn't something that comes up on a day-to-day basis. "I treat him like any other reporter," said Couts.
As he moves to his last year of high school, college remains a big question for Turton. For now, he wants to take a gap year.
"Nothing fascinates me in the way reporting and journalism does, so I feel like that is what I want to do with my life," said Turton. "I am doing my dream job right now and have seen some success, which is really gratifying."