A study investigating links between cyber crime and autistic-like personality traits is to begin.
Autism and traits of the condition appear to be more prevalent among cyber criminals than for other types of crime but the link remains unproven.
The project aims to cover all aspects of cyber crime, such as coding and malware, as well as activities carried out over the dark web, the undercurrent of the internet where users are able to appear anonymously and trade information and data, often illegal content.
The work will provide information on the size and nature of cyber crime and the degree to which autistic-like traits are represented in cyber crime offenders.
Researchers will also look to identify risk factors that could lead to cyber crime activity and what measures could be taken to prevent it.
The project is by the University of Bath’s Centre for Applied Autism, the cyber crime unit at the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the charity Research Autism.
Professor Mark Brosnan, of the University of Bath, said: “A growing perception among law enforcement agencies suggests that a significant number of people arrested in connection with cyber crime may be on the autism spectrum.
“But whilst media coverage has helped to shape public perceptions about this issue there has, to date, been little in the way of systematic research to really unpick this idea.
“Through our project we will explore whether autistic traits are actually associated with computer-related abilities and cyber crime.
“Whatever the conclusion, our findings will have important implications for better understanding why people do – and indeed do not – engage in cybercrime.”
The researchers hope the work will provide deeper understanding about the motivations and characteristics of people likely to commit cyber crime and how they become involved in such offences.
This understanding could feed into the national cyber crime counter-terrorism Prevent response.
The team also want to understand more about the motivating factors that influence people to conduct cyber crime.
It is thought that the challenge and sense of accomplishment that might come with cyber crime could be a motivating factor for certain people.
There is a growing concern that this might outweigh the consequences of cyber crime in some people’s minds, the researchers say.
Richard Mills, of Research Autism, said: “We are not setting out to prove there is a link between cyber crime and autism.
“There is already a connection between autism and cyber crime in the public’s mind, but our research will identify whether there is any truth in the association with autistic traits.”
Researchers also hope to highlight how highly computer-literate people might help prevent cybercrime for businesses, industries and government.
The project will involve interviewing people convicted of cyber crime and those served with cease and desist orders.
A large-scale survey across the general population will also be conducted.
Richard Jones, head of the NCA’s National Cybercrime Unit Prevent team said: “Understanding the profile of cyber criminals and the possible intervention points that can stop offending will help inform our delivery of cyber crime Prevent activity.
“We are very pleased to be associated with this project that will have international implications.”
The study, funded by Research Autism, Barclays and the NCA, is due to conclude by October 2017.