Experts say that teenagers are increasingly being attracted to the world of online crime because of the appeal of the environment and the kudos they can receive.
The Guardian reports that the demographics of computer crime have changed dramatically over the past year. As revealed by investigators with the United Kingdom's National Crime Agency (NCA), an equivalent to the FBI, the average age of computer criminals has fallen to 17 this year (as compared to an age of 24 in 2014).
The NCA attributes a heightened interest among teenagers for online crime to the growing popularity of two tools. The first is distributed denial of service (DDoS) platforms, such as the ready-to-buy DDoS packages created by the Lizard Squad hacker group following their Christmas Day DDoS campaigns against Xbox Live and PlayStation Network last year.
The second popular tool, remote access trojans (RATs), allows teens to spy on one another through their webcams and steal each other's login credentials.
For example, ZDNet writes that the Blackshades RAT, which one hacker in particular used to spy on his victims for up to 12 hours a day, led to the arrest of 22 people, the average age of which was 18. A 12-year-old individual was also arrested for having purchased the RAT.
"A lot of people can grow accustomed to using crime kits very easily," said Jaap van Oss, a team leader in Europol's Cyber Crime Centre, which according to the >BBC has also observed a decrease in the average age of online criminals. "We make them aware that using a RAT is not just for fun. It's a crime. We have larger programmes throughout the EU where we specifically target those younger users of those tools. It's not that we will convict them to serious sentences immediately, but we will take them up, knock and talk, and show them that they are breaking the law."
To prevent teenagers from receiving a more serious sentence in the future, the NCA has decided to launch the CyberChoices campaign. This initiative will target the parents of children aged 12-15 and explain to them the common tools that teenagers unwittingly flock to and what the consequences might be if their children are found to have violated the Computer Misuse Act.
(One need only look as far as arrests associated with the TalkTalk hack to understand how seriously law enforcement officers take such violations.)
Richard Jones from the NCA's National Cyber Crime Unit had this to say about the campaign: "Over the past few years the NCA has seen the people engaging in cyber crime becoming younger and younger. We know that simply criminalising young people cannot be the solution to this and so the campaign seeks to help motivate children to use their skills more positively."
He also explained why the NCA is targeting parents instead of the children themselves: "We have aimed the campaign initially at parents, because we know from research that they often are unaware of what their children are doing online. These individuals are really bright and have real potential to go on to exciting and fulfilling jobs. By the choosing the criminal path they can move from low level 'pranking' to higher lever cyber crime quite quickly, sometimes without even considering that what they're doing is against the law."
The teenage years are a time when many budding young adults seek to push the boundaries of what is legal.
Unfortunately for them, online crime is one of those things that can really come back to bite you in the future if it doesn't ruin your life outright. Let us hope that their parents can get through to them.
After all, we could really use their skill sets to fight the good fight of computer security.