Tapping into an underused resource

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Think like a criminal for just a moment, disbanding all thoughts of moral righteousness and ethical guidance. The only thing you want to do is hack into a system and you need to find the perfect person to do it for you. This person will be in the stage of life where their moral compass is not yet developed fully; probably young, brilliant, and obsessive to the point where their entire existence depends on a desired outcome. This person has to be more interested in overcoming complex challenges as opposed to monetary gain. Sound familiar? Stories of the top hackers are littered with people with Asperger syndrome, like Gary Mckinnon, who hacked into the United States military and NASA computers and deleted files from the operating system. The United States Army’s Military District of Washington DC network was shut down for 24 hours as a result. Lauri Love, a British/Finish hacker who also has Aspergers, was accused of stealing US military data and faced up to 99 years in person. Another Aspergers sufferer named Bob Leary was sentenced to 32 months, one of the most severe sentences ever imposed for hacking. He was only 19 years old at the time. And Seth Nolan, a 16-year-old drop-out with Aspergers, concocted the biggest Denial of Service (DoS) attack that slowed down large parts of the global Internet network. These aren’t the only hackers with a common disorder, the list goes on and on.

Misha Glenny, a British journalist, made a highly popular TED talk video titled, “Hire the Hackers!”. In the video he profiles several of the world’s top hackers. Most of them suffer from Aspergers or high functioning autism. Glenny suggests instead of locking these hackers away, we should actually hire them to work for the US government.

One of the main traits of an autistic disorder is the inability to predict the consequences of a current action — the immediate details are more important. Looking into the future is not as relevant. It can be difficult assimilating into mainstream jobs and communicating in interviews, and often times these people are left out of the technology jobs in which they are so well suited for. These reasons make them primary targets for seeking to commit digital crimes.

There are some bringing them more into the fold. Programs such as Make I.T. Soar offers individuals on the high autism spectrum the opportunity to work in the information technology industry and take advantage of the high degree of technical expertise.

When I worked as network analyst for a large telecommunications company, I knew a neighbor who was a brilliant computer network technician. He was a great person but he found it difficult to communicate in normal conversation with anyone. The only time his personality shined through was when the subject turned to computers. He would gleefully speak of the latest operating systems and all of the flaws he found in them and always excited to test the next new operating systems and applications. I recommended he apply for a job at my firm, but after administration met him, he wasn’t hired. It didn’t matter that he was smarter than most of the people already working there, it was because his awkward personality went against what management considered that of a “team player.” But where else could he go to be challenged, productive and fit in? As a technology teacher, I can attest that many of my best students were diagnosed with Aspergers or autism. I would give them assignments and they would perform it quickly, efficiently and correctly. They are always great technology students, though most of them find it difficult and awkward to be in social situations and would prefer to go about their work alone; quietly and doggedly, pushing their intellectual skills to the limits as they investigate their operating systems on their own terms. More time than not, they solved every problem presented to them. I know with the right leadership and guidance, some of these students will not be swayed to do the nefarious cyber activities they may be led to do. First, a lesson in ethics does not hurt, starting the first time they start use computers in elementary school. Second, these students must be constantly challenged. They will not be fully engaged in a cookie cutter educational atmosphere where everyone strictly follows a curriculum designed for mass consumption, and they never will. They have to be allowed and encouraged to traverse the vast landscape of cyber security, and cultivate the areas where they feel they have a special talent to really thrive.

Cultivating their skills will enable them to get a full experience on what cyber security is all about. More importantly, they will discover that the challenges inherited with protecting data is just as intriguing as doing harm to a system, and even more purposeful. Their skill set places them far above the average student or cyber security expert, and in our present environment, we need to do a better job of tapping into that great resource.



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Thomas Holt Russell

Thomas Holt Russell


Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. http://thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com/ My writing is a living organism.