It’s never too late to stop children being drawn to the dark side and ensure their abilities are a force for good
When we talk about cybercrime and children, it’s often about protecting little ones from online dangers. That could mean making sure our kids’ devices have the right parental control software set up so they don’t access dangerous or inappropriate content. The same goes for making sure anti-malware is installed and privacy settings are properly configured.
But what if a kid turns out to be the “bad guy”? It’s more common than you might think, partly because many children don’t realize at an early age that their “black hat” activities are illegal (as opposed to “white hat”, also known as ethical hacking).
The good news is that even if you suspect your own child is using their technological abilities for nefarious purposes, it’s not too late to set them on the right track. And there are many legitimate ways to channel their cyber expertise and ultimately help them launch a career in cybersecurity.
When computer hacking becomes child’s play
While this all sounds like the plot out of a Hollywood movie, the reality is more mundane. In fact, school-age hackers are becoming more common as the tools and techniques for committing cybercrime become cheaper and more accessible. Some kids have shown an amazing understanding of technology and threat techniques in their attacks, while others may just be curious to see how far they can take things.
The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said data from its National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU) showed a 107% increase in police reports of students using DDoS attacks from 2019 to 2020. The median age for referrals to NCCU’s Prevent team is reportedly 15, and a recent NCA report revealed that children as young as nine have been caught launching DDoS attacks. However, child cybercrime cases are not limited to DDoS attacks.
- London schoolgirl Betsy Davies was just seven years old when she demonstrated how to hack a stranger’s laptop over an insecure public Wi-Fi network in just 10 minutes. How did she do that? By searching online for instructions. Around 14,000 video tutorials came back from YouTube alone.
- Elliott Gunton was just 16 years old when he hacked UK ISP TalkTalk in a now infamous case that resulted in over 150,000 customer accounts being compromised. He was later jailed for various cybercrime offenses and charged with even more serious crimes in the US.
- An unnamed 16-year-old Australian schoolboy repeatedly broke into Apple’s internal systems and made off with 90GB of “secure files” while accessing customer accounts. The young man’s lawyer said the teenager did it because he admired Apple and dreamed of getting a job at the company.
What are the warning signs?
Parents are worried about most things. But when it comes to possible illegal hacking activities, they may rightly be alert to any change in their child’s behavior. A major Michigan State University (MSU) study in 2019 highlighted some of the key characteristics associated with juvenile cybercrime. These include:
- Low self control
- Peer Associations – ie knowing other children who also hack (mainly girls)
- Time spent watching TV or playing computer games (mainly boys)
- Opportunity – ie having your own computer in a private room, with minimal parental supervision
- Having access to a mobile phone from a young age
- Involvement in digital piracy
How do you know something’s wrong?
There are also a few signs that your child’s online activities may be out of control. For example, they might allude to private matters that indicate they may have read your emails/messages, or they go to extreme lengths to protect their own privacy and refuse to share their logins.
Of course, this may not mean more than just kids being kids. In fact, an early interest in some types of software, such as B. penetration testing tools, even be more than welcome.
But as Thomas Holt, lead author of the MSU report, explains, harmless “games” can escalate without oversight. Where could it lead? According to the NCA, anything from an official warning from officers to a fine, arrest and even imprisonment for the most serious offences.
On the way to more positive results
Parental control software downloaded onto your child’s devices can help spot the early warning signs of teenage hacking, such as: But if they have already reached a high level of tech literacy, they will probably be able to hide such activities.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to find a positive outlet for their skills. Fortunately, there are different ways to go. Some governments run cybersecurity programs for school-age students to test, improve, and develop their skills. The natural progression from here would be a full-fledged career in cybersecurity. An industry with a long history of severe job shortages means practitioners can start with a high starting salary and expect a long and rewarding career.
There are also government and privately run hacking competitions where all participants can compete with the best in the world and show off their talents to potential employers.
The most important thing, however, is to keep the lines of communication open. Take an interest in your children’s hobbies. And if you fear they’re drifting into illegality, remind them of the risks involved and nudge them towards more positive and legal options.
Here and here are some useful NCA articles to share with your kids.