Case Studies

Children and computer crime survey

by Mark Rowe

A survey of children aged ten to 16 showed that one in five engage in behaviours that violate the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which criminalises unauthorised access to computer systems and data. The figure is higher for those who game, standing at one in four, according to the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA). It’s calling on parents and teachers to help young people understand the implications of their behaviour online.

NCA Deputy Director Paul Foster, Head of the National Cyber Crime Unit, said: “Many young people are getting involved in cyber crime without realising that they are breaking the law. Our message to these teenagers is simple – don’t play games with your future.

“Whether you engage in this behaviour knowingly or without realising, you are committing an offence – and could face serious consequences for your actions. We’d encourage any concerned parents and teachers to speak to young people with an interest in tech, help them understand the dangers, and highlight the many rewarding and varied careers available to them.

“Our Cyber Choices team are here to help children, teachers and parents with advice and guidance.”

The NCA’s campaign tackling the issue will run for three weeks and includes video content on Snapchat and YouTube. What the NCA terms low-level offending can include downloading software to get access to someone else’s device, trying to access a protected server or buying something using the saved card details on someone else’s account. Gamers who make in-game purchases without the permission of the account holder or engage in DDoS-ing are breaking the law, despite often doing so unwittingly, the Agency adds.

Background

A CyberUp Campaign calls for cyber legislation for the 21st century through a reform of the Computer Misuse Act (CMA). In May 2021, the then Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that the Government would be conducting a formal review into the effectiveness of the CMA. In February 2023, the Government published its response to the review, which was without concrete proposals such as a timeline. Sir Patrick Vallance’s Digital Technology Regulation Review suggested a statutory public interest defence in a reformed CMA. Campaigners argue that Section 1 of the CMA, prohibiting unauthorised access to computers, inadvertently criminalises much vulnerability security and threat intelligence research and investigation work.

Comments

Darren Guccione, CEO and co-founder of cyber firm Keeper Security says: “Our children are growing up in a world that is more digitised and interconnected than ever before. While this brings great opportunities for learning, growth and entertainment online, the risks to our children’s safety and wellbeing are serious, and taking concrete actions to guard against those risks should be a priority for all parents.

“The online world is an enticing place that can be fraught with pitfalls for the uneducated. It’s vital to have open communication channels between educators, parents and students in a safe environment where young people feel comfortable discussing online experiences. Encouraging family discussions ensures that parents are actively involved in shaping responsible online behaviour.

“Emphasising etiquette, respect for privacy and discouraging cyber bullying can contribute to a healthier online community. Practical measures, such as parental controls and monitoring tools should be incorporated. Children should also be educated about regulations and laws such as the Computer Misuse Act, as well as the ramifications of online criminal behaviour.”

Adam Pilton, Cyber Security Consultant at CyberSmart, is a former Detective Sergeant investigating cybercrime at Dorset Police. He said: “The only surprise with these statistics is that the percentage of children who game and have violated the CMA is so low. Children are using mobile devices from a very young age, as such their dependency on them and ability to use them is ever-increasing. Even at primary school age, there is peer pressure to communicate and play online games with their friends, most of us will have heard of Minecraft and Fortnite.

“The boundaries in the online world aren’t as easy to see and understand as they are in the real world. Understanding how to slow down your friend’s internet connection or completely knock them offline during a game, may seem like an amusing prank, but is an offence under the CMA. Most parents will understand and acknowledge the dangers of the real world, having been there and seen them for themselves. They may not understand or be aware of the dangers that may lurk online. This generation is the first to grow up with such an easily accessible digital world. Both parents and children are learning as they go.

“As a former police detective who led a cybercrime unit, my team and I saw many incidents of children breaching the CMA. The majority of these were pranks that had gone too far, with friends and schools often being the victims of these crimes. Fortunately for these children, in appropriate cases, there are criminal disposal options that allow for education as opposed to punishment.

“We must ensure that both adults and children are aware of the CMA and how the actions we take could breach this. All Police Cybercrime units will have a Cyber Protect officer, who will talk with adults and children alike to offer advice and guidance, to both educate us and make sure that we and those closest to us, are informed and stay safe online.

“There are apps that can support children in safely using their devices. Google Family Link offers a great way for parents to give children the freedom to explore their devices and the internet, whilst allowing them to keep an eye on their activity as well as approve or decline the installation of new apps. These stats should make all parents and schools stop and think. Do we actually know what our children are up to on their devices?”

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