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New study into cybercrime and autistic traits

Autistic personality traits possibly linked to cyber crime - new study investigates

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A study based at the University of Bath will explore to what extent autistic personality traits are related to a predeliction to commit, or become otherwise involved in, cyber crime.

An image of the archetypal hacker – a reclusive man more comfortable with code than conversation – already exists firmly in the public imagination. While autistic-like personality traits (such as highly-focused interests) appear to be more prevalent among those involved in cyber crime than other forms of crime, the connection remains unproven.

The study, carried out by Bath’s Centre of Applied Autism, the cyber crime division of the National Crime Agency and the charity Research Autism, will look at all forms of cyber crime, including malware and ‘dark web’ activity. It aims to identify the personal characteristics of people likely to commit cyber crime, as well as exploring the motivations behind their offences.

It is suggested that some people may be drawn to cyber crime due to its challenging nature and the sense of accomplishment it gives outweighing its possible consequences. A previous study has suggested that people with autistic spectrum disorder may be more vulnerable to becoming used in cyber-criminal gangs

There have been a handful of high-profile cases of hackers with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome - a form of autistic spectrum disorder. These include Gary McKinnon, who was accused of hacking into US military and NASA computers, and Lauri Love, who was accused of stealing data from US agencies including the FBI. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claimed in extracts from his ‘Unauthorized Autobiography’ that “I am - all hackers are, and I would argue all men are - a little bit autistic”.

“We are not setting out to prove there is a link between cyber crime and autism,” said Richard Mills, of Research Autism. “There is already a connection between autism and cyber crime in the public’s mind, but our research will identify whether there is any truth in the association with autistic traits.”

The researchers will interview people convicted of cyber crime and those served with cease and desist orders, as well as conducting a survey of the wider population. They expect to reach their conclusions in October 2017.

“A growing perception among law enforcement agencies suggests that a significant number of people arrested in connection with cyber crime may be on the autistic spectrum,” said Professor Mark Brosnan, director of the Centre for Applied Autism Research at the University of Bath. “Whilst media coverage has helped to shape public perceptions about this issue there has, to date, been little in the way of systematic research to really unpick this idea.”

“Through our project we will explore whether autistic traits are actually associated with computer-related abilities and cyber crime.”

“Whatever the conclusion, our findings will have important implications for better understanding why people do – and indeed do not – engage with cyber crime.”

As well as investigating the possible relationship between autistic traits and cyber crime, the study will provide information on the scale and nature of cyber crime and may allow researchers to identify certain risk factors. This could lead to the development of measures to prevent cyber crime, including as part of the proposed ‘Cyber Prevent’ strategy.

This strategy, partially modelled on the ‘Prevent’ counter-terrorism strategy, has been suggested as a means of discouraging young people from becoming involved in cyber crime. One of its key messages is that young computer literate people could use their skills for cyber security rather than cyber crime.

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