Many young cyber-criminals are motivated to break the law because they relish the challenge, sense of accomplishment and validating their skills with peers, and could be deterred by targeted interventions highlighting the positive opportunities to achieve the same legally, according to the NCA.
The UK crime agency’s NCCU Prevent team spoke to a range of former offenders and those heading towards cyber-criminality via cease & desist visits in order to better understand the pathways into cybercrime.
The average age of cyber-criminals in the UK is far lower than that of other crimes: just 17-years-old in 2015, compared to around 37 in NCA drugs cases.
The report found that many youngsters are drawn into cybercrime via “modding” and gaming cheat forums and progress to criminal hacking forums without fully acknowledging the gravity of the step.
As for why they do so, money is not always a priority for young offenders, although off-the-shelf hacking tools have made it increasingly easy for even low-skilled hackers to generate profits for relatively little effort.
Instead, many offenders are motivated by more innocuous factors, the report explained:
“Completing a challenge, a sense of accomplishment and proving oneself to peers are key motivations for those involved in cyber-criminality. These factors are repeated throughout the debriefs and academic literature, as the main reason young people begin and continue hacking. An 18-year-old who was arrested for obtaining unauthorized access to a US government site said ‘I did it to impress the people in the hacking community, to show them I had the skills to pull it off…I wanted to prove myself…that was my main motivation’.”
These motivational factors could be used to steer young offenders away from cybercrime, according to the NCA.
“That can be as simple as highlighting opportunities in coding and programming, or jobs in the gaming and cyber industries, which still give them the sense of accomplishment and respect they are seeking”, argued Richard Jones, head of NCCU Prevent.
Jamie Graves, CEO of ZoneFox, said more should be done to change the perception of cybersecurity and encourage more talented young hackers into the industry.
“Yes, targeting and removing the free tools that exist online that allow hacking to take place, must be a focus, but more innovative approaches are needed,” he argued.
"Instead of spending resources looking to suppress these highly intelligent young individuals and put them behind bars, we should be identifying them and nurturing and encouraging them to contribute positively in roles that can utilize their skills, both in the private and public sectors. This will not only empower them for good, but also boost the economy and safeguard the nation."
The report also burst the myth that cybercrime is a solitary affair, claiming online relationships are key and that building reputation drives young cyber-criminals.
It claimed that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) appears more prevalent among cyber-criminals than the general populace, although this has yet to be proved.
Earlier this month a new study was announced to explore exactly that link.