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Can Interventions Help Teens Transition from Cyber Crime to Cybersecurity?

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SAN FRANCISCO — Recent data shows that the average age of arrest in the U.S. is 37 years old, but when it comes to cyber crime, the average age drops dramatically to just 19. Experts at the 2024 RSA Conference have pointed out that this significant difference is due to the lack of proactive interventions in the U.S. to deter young people from engaging in cyber criminal activities. In comparison, other countries have already implemented successful strategies to prevent youth from entering the world of cyber crime, offering valuable lessons for the U.S. to consider.

During the conference, William McKeen, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Cyber Division, highlighted the growing trend of younger individuals engaging in sophisticated cyber crimes. He emphasized the severity of the situation, noting that news of cyber intrusions involving potential nation-state actors or even teenagers in the U.S. has become a common occurrence. To address this pressing issue, federal authorities are taking steps to integrate cyber crime prevention measures into the National Cybersecurity Strategy, emphasizing collaboration between government agencies and the private sector to disrupt and deter juvenile cyber crime activities both domestically and internationally.

According to McKeen, many young people start their journey into cyber crime by dabbling in minor activities such as website defacement or distributed denial of service attacks after initially being involved in video gaming. As they progress, some individuals escalate to more serious offenses like ransomware attacks. Moreover, there have been cases of adult criminal actors recruiting youths to participate in cyber criminal activities, underscoring the need for early intervention measures.

Abby Deift, director of policy and strategy at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Chief AI Officer, also raised concerns about the impact of low-level cyber crimes, highlighting that actions like defacing a website could have a more substantial negative impact than physical acts like graffiti on a building. The Cyber Safety Review Board emphasized the lack of cyber-specific intervention programs in the U.S. designed to divert at-risk youth from entering the realm of cyber crime.

Floor Jansen, team leader of the Dutch Police’s Cyber Offender Prevention Squad, shared insights from the Netherlands’ successful intervention programs aimed at deterring youth from cyber crime and guiding them towards cybersecurity careers. One initiative involves engaging with schools to educate students about cyber crime risks and potential career paths in cybersecurity, identifying high-risk individuals for further workshops and mentorship opportunities.

In the U.S., efforts are underway to involve schools, private sector entities, and nonprofits in cyber crime prevention initiatives. The FBI is exploring the implementation of cyber awareness campaigns, educational programs, and mentorship initiatives to steer at-risk teens away from criminal activities. Additionally, a university pilot program offers lower-level cyber offenders the opportunity to enroll in a free online course for college credit as a means of redirection.

Simple yet effective intervention strategies, such as anti-hacking ads that appear alongside online search results related to cyber attacks, have proven to be impactful in dissuading individuals from committing cyber crimes. These warnings serve as a timely reminder of the consequences of engaging in illegal online activities, reaching potential offenders at a crucial moment of decision-making.

The Netherlands has also established a community service program for first-time cyber offenders, providing them with the opportunity to use their skills for positive contributions to society. Participants work under probation officer supervision to leverage their technical abilities in constructive ways, reducing the likelihood of recurring offenses.

Overall, the importance of early intervention in deterring youth from cyber crime, nurturing tech talent for positive contributions, and preventing long-term consequences of criminal records cannot be overstated. By offering alternative paths for young individuals to channel their skills into legal and productive endeavors, we can create a future where every young person has the opportunity to choose a career as a cyber professional instead of a cyber criminal.

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