Project launches to find out if there is truly a link between cybercrime and autism

Is there really a link between cybercrime and autistic-like personality traits? A new project intends to find out and then feed the data into a counter-terrorism program.

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Is there really a link between autism and cybercrime? A project launched today intends to find out.

When President Donald Trump proclaimed April 2 to be World Autism Awareness Day – actually it was the ninth annual such day – he cited CDC estimations that “Autism spectrum disorders affect an estimated one out of every 68 children in America.”

It seems Hollywood is trying to show how common autism is; Billy, the blue ranger, in Power Rangers, and Sesame Street’s Muppet Julia are recent characters with autism spectrum disorder which are not portrayed as Rain Man-like savants.

In the real world, there is a growing belief that “neurodiversity, including autism, can be a competitive advantage for software testing and quality assurance (QA) teams.” 75 percent of employees at ULTRA Testing are on the autism spectrum as it believes that leveraging neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage.

If you follow cybercrime news, then you’ve heard of people charged with cybercrimes claiming to have Asperger’s syndrome. Yet the link between cybercrime and people with autistic-like personality traits is unproven. Today, a new project was launched to determine if there is a correlation between autism and cybercrime.

Project to find out if there really is a link between cybercrime and autism

The University of Bath’s Center for Applied Autism Research, in conjunction with the charity Research Autism and the cybercrime division of the National Crime Agency launched a new study to investigate if there is any truth to the link between autistic traits and cybercrime.

Research Autism previously explained:

There is a growing perception among law enforcement agencies that a significant number of those being arrested in connection with cybercrime may be on the autism spectrum. This is an area that has received much attention in the media but little in the way of systematic research.

The project will cover “all aspects of cybercrime – which could involve coding and malware, as well as activities carried out over the ‘dark web’ where some of the real challenges lie.”

The researchers are interested in “pure” cybercrimes that “can only be committed using a computer, computer networks or other forms of information communications technology (ICT). This is different from ‘cyber-enabled crimes’ (such as fraud) which can be conducted on or offline.”

Some cyber-dependent crime examples given include hacking – gaining authorized access to a computer network; “pranking” defined as “making, supplying or obtaining malware (viruses, spyware, botnets, Remote Access Trojans);” and “booting” such as by launching DDoS attacks in an attempt to overwhelm an online service with internet traffic to make it unavailable.

The research team specifically wants to understand the motivating factors that may “influence people to conduct cybercrime. It is thought that the challenge and sense of accomplishment that might come with cybercrime could be a motivating factor for certain people, and there is a growing concern that this might outweigh the consequences in some people’s minds.”

“Through our project, we will explore whether autistic traits are actually associated with computer-related abilities and cybercrime,” said Professor Mark Brosnan. “Whatever the conclusion, our findings will have important implications for better understanding why people do – and indeed do not – engage in cybercrime.”

The research will include interviewing people who have been convicted of cybercrimes as well as people served with “cease and desist” orders.

Additionally, there will be a large-scale survey of the general public. (Visit the survey information page at your own risk as it triggered a block due to malware according to Malwarebytes.)

If you take your chances and look at information about the survey meant for people age 14 or more anyway, it says there will first be four questionnaires that look at computer skills, general abilities, an understanding of everyday situations and traits of autism. Next, there will be a short online interview seeking to learn if you have ever committed an online crime or were asked to do so. Allegedly, no one other than the research team will be able to identify participants who will be anonymized and known only as a number. The data gathered will be stored for a whopping 10 years.

The results of the study will be used to help understand “the profile of cybercriminals and the possible intervention points;” the data will be fed into NCA’s Prevent (pdf) counter-terrorism program. Richard Jones, Head of the NCA’s National Cybercrime Unit Prevent team, added, “We are very pleased to be associated with this project that will have international implications.”

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

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