Teenage hackers motivated by morality not money, study finds

Teenage hackers are motivated by idealism and impressing their mates rather than money, according to a study by the National Crime Agency.

The law enforcement organisation interviewed teenagers and children as young as 12 who had been arrested or cautioned for computer-based crimes.

It found that those interviewed, who had an average age of 17, were unlikely to be involved in theft, fraud or harassment. Instead they saw hacking as a “moral crusade”, said Paul Hoare, senior manager at the NCA’s cybercrime unit, who led the research.

Others were motivated by a desire to tackle technical problems and prove themselves to friends, the report found.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hoare said: “They don’t understand the implications on business, government websites and individuals.”

Young hackers could profit from their skills if they avoided cybercrime, he said. “A lot of the skill sets these people have are hugely marketable. The world has a lack of cybersecurity and there are lucrative careers to be had, but [they] are much harder to come by if you already have a criminal conviction.”

The report said: “Conquering the challenge, proving oneself to the group and intellectual satisfaction are more important motivations than financial gain.”

Jake Davis, a former member of the Anonymous hacking collective who was arrested aged 18 in 2011 for attacking government websites, said he had no desire to profit from his crimes but wanted to challenge secrecy.

He said: “It was not financially motivated at all, as the NCA report says, it was mostly politically motivated. I was motivated as a teenager by the idea that this internet was this utopian space that shouldn’t be controlled or filtered or segmented or chopped up into little blocks and distributed out, and that it should be open and free, and anyone in the world should be able to use it.”

Davis, who served time in a young offender institution and was banned from the internet for two years, said he had not lost his idealism. “There is still a place for that kind of idea of freedom online, but we got a little bit out of hand,” he said.

There were more opportunities to get involved in “ethical hacking”, he suggested. “Companies and governments love hiring hackers. There are systems in place called bug bounties. You get to hack to prevent them being hacked. Companies will put out a message to say: ‘This is within scope, if you hack us responsibly, tell us about it, we will patch it up and then we will pay you.’

“The hackers will message the company saying: ‘I’ve found this bug in your system, here is what damage it can cause.’ If you take a company like Twitter they have paid over $800,000 [£625,000] to hackers over the last few years.”


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