NCA experts call on universities to divert young men from cybercrime path
UEL audience hears how boys as young as 12 can drift into illegal cyber activities
A Senior officer from the National Crime Agency (NCA) told an audience of University of East London (UEL) students, academics and members of the public that universities had an important role to play in preventing young men from turning to cybercrime.
NCA senior officer Greg Francis was speaking at a special guest lecture hosted by the UEL Legal Advice Centre in Stratford, east London, earlier this month.
The NCA, known as the UK version of the FBI, leads UK law enforcement's battle against serious and organised crime. They have national and international reach thanks to the G7 network of 60 countries sharing intelligence to capture dangerous criminals.
Its officers can have the combined powers of police constables, immigration officers and customs officials, making them one of the most powerful forces in the country in the fight against cybercrime.
Mr Francis, a former Specialist Investigator with HM Customs and Excise who served the criminal justice system as a magistrate for 18 years in east London, said universities had the chance to encourage young men to use their advanced computer skills in the world of work and research rather than drifting into cybercrime.
“When we arrest these lads for offences such as network intrusion (hacking) or the development and deployment of malicious software (malware), they are always asked why they chose this path,” said Mr Francis.
“They invariably tell us that they did it for the challenge. Many do not realise the serious nature of some of their crimes. These boys are technically gifted and need to be challenged and guided.”
Mr Francis added that many of those found guilty or suspected of engaging in pure or cyber dependent crime and activities to facilitate cybercrime were male, between 12-26 years old, technically proficient in programming and coding with a high IQ and poor social skills. Most, if not all, spent lots of time isolated in their bedroom with little interaction in the real world.
“Their journey often begins with online gaming and learning how to modify and cheat at it,” he explained. “They may then start to make contacts online, forge relationships and participate in ‘modding and cheating’ forums. From there, it can be an easy transition to the darker, criminal forums.
“In the world of malware, hacking, botnets, dark web, cyber fraud and coding, these boys are seen as leaders. They are popular and people look up to them.
“They get caught by us but do not fit the typical profile of a criminal, and the justice system struggles to find the appropriate judicial disposal for them.”
Some of the case studies Mr Francis cited included a 16-year-old developer, a 22-year-old malware fraudster, a 20-year-old moderator of a dark web forum and another 20-year-old who administered a fraudulent credit card forum.
“Universities do not need to wait until these boys are 18 years old,” he said. “They are ready to do challenging university-level work and need the support universities can provide around career options. Many do not realise they can put their skills to good use.”
Fellow NCA senior officer Richard Beeton warned the audience that homes and household gadgets – the ‘internet of things’ – was now a new frontier for cyber criminals.
“Organised crime gangs are using innocent people’s homes as hubs for their activity,” he explained. “They can hack into your PC or laptop, washing machine or wi-fi network and use them as channels to send and receive harmful software and carry out criminal activity around the world.
“They can hack into your social media accounts, your webcams and even baby monitors and use those to spy on you or blackmail you and demand a ransom, which is becoming more and more common.”
Both of the NCA officers stressed that the public needed to be vigilant and to use the anti-malware and anti-virus software available.
The NCA have a campaign called Cyber Choices, launched in December 2015, to warn young people and their parents about the dangers of cybercrime activity and signpost teens to positive alternatives.
The campaign includes a film for parents, a game for young people, and a lesson plan for teachers.