Mention the word "hacker," and most people wouldn't think of a 15-year-old Jewish kid from the suburbs.
But Ari Weinstein is one of 'em — a teen who spends a good chunk of time on his computer and iPhone, but also loves biking, running, swimming and hanging out with his brothers.
Ari's focus is the iPhone — in particular, jail-breaking (accessing without restriction) the phone so he can put applications on it that Apple doesn't condone.
"The hacking I do is ethical and legal," he says earnestly. "I don't hack into people's computers, or do malicious or illegal hacking. I've never done that before, and I don't ever want to."
A 10th-grader at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia who attends Hebrew school at Congregation Mishkan Shalom, Ari got his technological start in preschool, when he figured out how to change settings on his family's computer.
As a child, he was already building Web sites; by grade six, he was an official hacker, seeking out free games to download onto his iPod mini.
"From an early age, he was reading computer manuals, and devouring books about DOS and old programming languages," says his father, Ken Weinstein, 45, a real estate developer. "In terms of his programming abilities and knowledge of technology, he's almost 100 percent self-taught."
One of Ari's Bar Mitzvah gifts was an iPod touch, a device that he jail-broke in a single evening. To make it easier for others to do the same, he and a group of co-hackers that call themselves the Chronic Dev team, simplified the process into the iJailbreak software, a program that has since been downloaded about a million times.
"One thing Apple doesn't let you do is run multiple applications at once on the iPhone," says Ari. "For example, if I'm instantly messaging someone and want to check my e-mail, I'll be disconnected from my instant message. But with jail-break, I can do both at once."
The software can be downloaded from a site, and includes applications that allow the phone to serve as a laptop-computer modem, and to block ads on the iPhone's mobile Internet browser. One way that users show their appreciation is by donating cash, and Ari says that he has received "several thousand dollars" to date.
He also earns $20 an hour remedying the computer problems of family and friends.
A Wall Street Journal story about Ari's hacking prompted an online discussion from readers, some of whom accused him and his father of unethical behavior.
Ari, however, disagrees.
"When you buy an iPhone, I think you have the right to do whatever you want with it and put whatever applications you want on it because you paid for it," he says. "It's not up to Apple to decide what you put on your phone."
Weinstein actually consulted with an attorney on the matter.
He maintains that he is confident that Ari is "well within his rights in what he's doing."
His son is always on the lookout for programs he would want, and then he attempts to write them.
"Right now, he's working on DeskConnect with Ben Feldman, a program that connects your iPhone to your desktop so you can access your desktop information from your iPhone," he says proudly.
"Ari has a good business sense and is very entrepreneurial," he adds. "I'd like to say he gets [it] from me, but in terms of learning and understanding the technology, he's done all that himself."