Hacker Culture: The Young World of Cybercrime

In a world that has become so terrifyingly reliant on digital technologies, we can often forget the vulnerabilities it leaves us open to. While cyber-attacks are not unusual, their sophistication, frequency and potential impact have left people all over the world feeling vulnerable.

Alongside the ever-increasing levels of digital literacy, comes the normalisation and increase of cyber criminality. Every year, our annual Youth Culture Report provides a deep dive into the habits, behaviours and attitudes of young people. For the past two years, this report has revealed that data privacy is the top concern of young people today. However, data breaches are often perpetrated by young people.

The Insidious Growth of Cybercrime

Technology vulnerabilities are growing at a rate that frequently outpaces cyber security capabilities. With different digital crimes emerging daily, we need to ask: does everything we do online have the potential to be weaponised against us? Cybercrime ranges from fraud and identity theft to the rise of ransomware, to ‘hacktivism’ - which makes personal and political statements through digital disruption or whistle-blowing.

At a corporate level, there is no question of its impact, with major companies in Ireland estimated to be hacked between two and seven times a week. European companies are now even preemptively stockpiling Bitcoins (a worldwide, decentralised online currency) to pay off hackers holding their data for ransom.

The Anatomy of a Hacker

There are recognised types of Hackers who are known online by different coloured hats. ‘White Hat’ hackers are essentially security experts who identify potential vulnerabilities with positive societal intentions. ‘Black Hats’, are the scary alternative, who use or sell these vulnerabilities. ‘Gray Hats’ sit somewhere in the middle. They disclose or sell this information to governments who will use them against criminals.

While young people are increasingly concerned about hacker culture, they are also the demographic most likely to engage in cybercrime. The National Crime Agency (NCA), reported the average age for those arrested for cybercrimes on the periphery of malicious hacking were only 17 years old. For many young people who get involved with cybercrime, they do so exploring a curiosity without often realising the extreme consequences it can have.

Making the right Cyber Choice

With an ongoing talent shortage in the field of security, the need for recognition of young tech talent and early intervention into hacking behaviour is critical. Dr. Mary Aiken, the prominent Irish Cyber Psychologist in cyber criminality, has highlighted the need for an education and initiatives to redirect tech skills towards these more positive areas like cyber security.

In the U.K., the NCA has launched an awareness campaign, #CyberChoices, to educate these young people on the dangerous implications and help parents and teachers recognise unusual activity. The frightening reality is that these young people have incredible technical capability while still in a period of adolescent self-discovery. The damaging reach of these individual’s youthful rebellion suddenly becomes a potentially terrifying prospect. In addition to the need for education, we have a challenge and responsibility to start reappropriating ‘hacker culture’ in the eyes of young audiences.

We need to cease positioning the behaviour as that of the intellectualised anti-hero and instead begin to introduce young tech talent to the collective conversation on cyber security. It's time to ask young people how we can help them to make positive cyber choices.

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