Elijah Rehberg’s first Xbox hack wasn’t easy. Nor was it legal, exactly.
The security breech was achieved after countless hours of investigation and effort — or what Rehberg might call fun. Once inside, the Scandia teen had access to information Microsoft had done its best to protect.
But he stole nothing. Instead, he contacted the tech company, told them he’d hacked the console and explained how.
In response, Microsoft programmers reinforced the Xbox’s security, making it even more difficult to break in.
But Rehberg did it again. And again.
“Finding even one is a big deal,” said Rehberg’s mother, Krista Schaaf. “They thought the Xbox was iron clad.”
To date, Rehberg has found more than 30 security exploits for Microsoft, sharing the information with the company each time. Call it white hat hacking. Call it security research. Either way, Rehberg’s efforts have turned heads at Microsoft. This year the company honored the 17-year-old with a Most Valuable Professional Award, flying him and Schaaf to their headquarters in Redmond, Washington. There, Rehberg toured the company’s campus, met staff and attended the March MVP Summit.
MVPs vary widely in their interests and skills, Schaaf reported. Rehberg was the sole MVP recognized for security research.
“One woman does podcasts about the black community and the entertainment industry. She covers gaming and software,” Schaaf explained. “Another MVP represents Canada. They’re all vastly different. …
“There’s a lot of respect for demographics that I don’t see respected often,” she continued. “… Observing people of color speak openly, vulnerably, and be heard stood out to me because I look for it. They feel safe for a reason … And their words make change.
“MVPs are doing things that I didn’t even know were benefitting me. Their work and the work of the MVP program offer such a diverse and rich contribution to society, from how we perceive technology to how we use it. It really creates substantial change. I’d love to see more MVPs. It’s an opportunity for anyone interested in how technology can better society.”
For Rehberg, the weeklong trip was an affirmation of past efforts and a glimpse into his potential future.
He had started trying to hack the Xbox about a year and a half before.
“One day I just wanted to see if I could find exploits,” he said. “And then I did, and I went from there.”
He’d spent almost his entire life taking things apart and figuring out how they work.
“He started with taking apart hardware, then it was software,” explained his mother, Schaaf. “Then it became taking apart the internet. He wants to see how it works. … It was probably about fifth grade that he started hacking.”
Schaaf helped Rehberg build his first computer, but before long his tech questions had outpaced her knowledge.
“I was curious as a parent, how do you nurture this in a positive way?” said Schaaf. “I think kids often turn to black hat hacking because they have a hyper focused desire to understand. Unfortunately, they find negative avenues to do it. Just like any other thing with kids, if you don’t give them a positive avenue they might end up in bad places just out of curiosity.
“After seeing the people and atmosphere and culture at Microsoft,” she continued, “I feel really honored that they took him seriously, as a minor from some small town in Minnesota, and have given him so much attention and recognition.”
Years after taking his tech education into his own hands, Rehberg hopes to follow the interest into adulthood.
“I want it to turn into a career,” he said, “But until now it’s been for fun, mostly. I enjoy doing it.”