Steering Young Hackers in the Right Direction

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What makes a young person travel down the wrong path into illegal hacking?

Research from Michigan State University sheds some light on early hacking behavior to find what factors prompted illegal hacking behaviors in both girls and boys.

The research, published in the academic journal Crime & Delinquency, studied responses from 50,000 teenagers around the world to determine predictors of hacking.

Some factors were the same as those that prompted other juvenile delinquency, such as low self-control.

“While low self-control plays a huge role with kids and teens, some of them mature as they age and can sit for hours, which gives them time to refine the skills of a sophisticated hacker,” said researcher Thomas Holt, lead author and MSU cybercrime expert in the School of Criminal Justice.

However, girls and boys differed in their vulnerability to peer pressure. Girls are more likely to engage in illicit online hacking if their friends do, found the research, whereas boys who spent a lot of time on screens (including video games and TV) were more likely to fall into that life.

Not all kids who love video games end up committing online crime, though. Are there other factors that draw teens into illicit online activity? Dutch National High Crime Unit adviser Floor Jansen spotted an “over representation” of autistic traits among the hackers that police pick up. This is something that the National Police Chiefs’ Council has echoed here in the UK. Many psychologists believe that autism is closely linked to Aspergers Syndrome and have invented a new category to describe people with these characteristics: Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Daniel Kelley, a hacker responsible for the TalkTalk attack, has Aspergers Syndrome, as does Gary McKinnon, the Scottish hacker who broke into Pentagon systems. The same goes for Lauri Love, now battling to get his computers back from UK police after a bust, and for Adam Mudd, who created who built the Titanium Stresser DDoS tool. Ryan Cleary, who hacked the UK Serious Organised Crime Agency, also has ASD. Max Butler (the subject of Kevin Poulsen’s excellent book Kingpin, now serving a 13-year stretch after building a massive carding empire), is bipolar.

Research has found that students with more AD traits correlate with those who engaged in hacking and identity theft. And Bluescreen, an IT company that makes a point of employing young hackers who have been caught to give them a second chance, has said that it gets its fair share of people on the autism spectrum.

This doesn’t mean that most people with ASD will become cybercriminals. That’s a ridiculous thought. Neither does it mean that every digitally smart teen with ASD traits will take the hacking route. Nevertheless, ASD-like symptoms among teens that exhibit other warning signs like isolation, advanced digital skills, and a passion for online gaming, could raise a red flag when seen together. It may just be something to keep an eye on.

So, all the normal rules apply when parenting and guiding young people. Supervise their screen time, get involved, and understand who they're talking to online (cybercriminals routinely recruit teens through online gaming). Do your best to ensure that they’re socially engaged and watch for signs of isolation.

Moreover, being alert for the signs of potential autism spectrum disorder in older children and teens could be a game changer. Early diagnosis can be a huge help for any teen, regardless of their interests. It can also set tech-savvy teens on the right path and a potentially lucrative career in cybersecurity. As companies turn to the ASD community for help in filling the cybersecurity skills gap, they’ll have plenty of opportunities.

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