Experts warn autistic people much more vulnerable to drifting into cyber crime

Autistic people are vulnerable to sliding into cyber crime and potentially being targeted by organised gangs, experts have said.

The warning comes as the National Crime Agency – Britain’s version of the FBI – is looking into links between autism and cyber crime after many alleged hackers were found to have the condition.

Among them is Lauri Love, 31, who has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, and is battling extradition to the US where he faces up to 99 years in prison for allegedly hacking into Nasa and Federal Reserve computers.

A British judge is due on Friday to rule on whether he will be sent to America to stand trial. Love has not entered formal pleas to any of the charges and insists that if he must stand trial it should be in Britain.

Richard Mills, research director at Research Autism and co-author of a study published last year on autism and cybercrime, said he suspected some autistic individuals are “drifting” into crime while exploring the murky world of online gaming and forums.

He told the Press Association: “Based on our preliminary study we would say that there is a perception that autistic individuals are much more vulnerable to becoming involved in this kind of offending.

“The majority of those who get involved with this are not the so-called mastermind hackers, they are people who are very good at coding. They might not even know that what they are doing is illegal and may not see their behaviour from the point of view of others.

“Because they are very good at coding and recognising patterns they can be exploited by organised crime.”

Rebecca Ledingham, who used to work in cyber crime at Interpol, said she first noticed a lot of hackers had autism traits while at the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) some years ago.

She said the internet can give autistic people the things they crave – attention, company and friendship.

But once online some can turn to crime.

She told the Press Association: “I don’t believe they are groomed, but they have a skill set that is desirable online as many have a natural aptitude for computers and technology and they tend to cross that boundary of what they should be doing to what they shouldn’t be doing quite easily.

“Many are involved in the gaming community online which has a very active forum membership.

“Forum activity can expose them to illegal activities they would not normally partake in offline.

“They talk to people online who they would not meet in real life and because of the autism they are very naive, they are a poor judge of character.

“Having the ability to hack, code or generate malware gets you a lot of kudos, adulation and status online that these people would never ever get in real life.”

As crime agencies explore the possible link between the condition and hacking, there are growing calls for schools and health providers to do more to diagnose and support those with the condition.

Lauri Love’s father Alexander called for autism screening in schools and more programmes to channel the energy of those with the condition.

Rev Love, a Baptist minister from Suffolk, said: “It is a bit like the dark side and the light side in Star Wars – if we don’t give them positive ways to channel their energy then they end up getting stuck into something else.

“We create a vacuum and they end up going down a route that is not helpful for them or anyone else.”

Labour MP Barry Sheerman, whose young grandson has autism, said that to some, hacking became “a game”.

He said: “These people are not doing it for the money, they are doing it to see if they can.

“They are talking to other people in this circle or club across the internet saying ‘I’ve tried this, have you tried that?’

“Very often it is all a game until someone knocks on the door and says ‘you have been breaking the law and you will face the penalty’.

“Unless this is addressed I fear more and more young people who should not be part of the criminal justice system and should not get a criminal record will unnecessarily get involved in illegal activity and get a criminal record.”

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