While autism and higher autistic-like traits appear to be more prevalent among cyber criminals than for other types of crime, this link remains unproven. This project aims to 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 suggest.

In addition to providing important information on the nature and size of this issue and the degree to which autistic-like traits are represented in cybercrime offenders, the project will look to identify the risk factors that could lead to cybercrime activity, and consider what preventative measures could be taken.

By investigating whether there is a link between autistic-like traits, computer-related skills and cybercrime, the team behind the new project hope to understand more about the motivations and characteristics of people likely to commit cybercrime and how they became involved in offending. They hope that this can feed into the national cybercrime Prevent response.

Specifically the team want to understand more about the motivating factors that 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.

The research is being carried out by Katy-Louise Payne, Dr Ailsa Russell, Dr Katie Maras and Professor Mark Brosnan from the Centre for Applied Autism Research at the University of Bath.

Professor Mark Brosnan explained: “A growing perception among law enforcement agencies suggests that a significant number of people arrested in connection with cybercrime may be on the autism spectrum. But 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 cybercrime. Whatever the conclusion, our findings will have important implications for better understanding why people do - and indeed do not - engage in cybercrime.”

Richard Mills of Research Autism added: “We are not setting out to prove there is a link between cybercrime and 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.”

Richard Jones, Head of the NCA’s National Cybercrime Unit Prevent team said: “Understanding the profile of cybercriminals and the possible intervention points that can stop offending will help inform our delivery of cybercrime Prevent activity. We are very pleased to be associated with this project that will have international implications.”

The research is funded by Research Autism, Barclays and the NCA and is scheduled to conclude in October 2017. Through this work the researchers also hope to highlight how highly computer-literate people might help prevent cybercrime for businesses, industries and governments concerned about cybercrime.

Troels Oerting, Chief Security Officer at Barclays, said: “There is a significant amount of autistic individuals that are highly skilled individuals with rare skills. If given the right opportunities, they could be a very valuable asset to any organization. The ability to focus, pay attention to detail, and solve complex problems are highly valuable abilities for the cyber security field. We are delighted to support this important mission."

Elena Kvochko, CIO, Group Security Function, Barclays, added: “The strategy for any organization that wants to be forward thinking is to recruit and retain talented and highly skilled individuals, taking into consideration rare skills and attention to details. We should look for highly skilled individuals that will share our mission, give them the opportunities to use their skills for a good cause, and, hopefully, help enable new chances in life.”

The project will involve interviewing people convicted of cybercrime and those served with ‘cease and desist’ orders. The research team behind this new study will also conduct a large-scale survey across the general population.

Find out more and take part in the short survey (open to all – over the age of 14)

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