Researchers examine the characteristics of hackers

These days cybersecurity is of the utmost importance. Malicious online hacking can cost the private and corporate sectors up to $575 billion annually, according to internet security firm McAfee.

Many security agencies currently seek out “ethical” hackers in order to help combat such attacks, but yet still, little is known about the personality traits that lead people to pursue and excel at hacking.

Hackers more likely to show autistic-like traits. (Image Credit: Pixabay)
Hackers are more likely to show autistic-like traits. (Image Credit: Pixabay)

A new study published on Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has examined this. The study has shown that a characteristic called systemizing provides insight into what creates and motivates a hacker.

“We found a positive association between an individual’s drive to build and understand systems, called systemizing, and hacking skills and expertise,” said Dr. Elena Rusconi of the Division of Psychology at Abertay University in Dundee, UK, “In particular, we found that this drive is positively and specifically correlated with code-breaking performance.”

In this study, Rusconi’s group found that volunteer “ethical” hackers performed far above average on a series of code-breaking challenges designed to assess their systemizing skills.  These hackers also reported characteristics within themselves that indicated a strong tendency towards systemizing.

Systemizing is a trait this is also associated with autism. With that knowledge, Rusconi also profiled participants for other autistic-like behaviors and skills. Though none of the hackers were autistic, they all achieved higher scores for attention to detail, another trait associated with autism.

What the researchers found interesting was that stronger systemizing scores, but not attention to detail, actually produced more skillful code-breaking. On the other hand, participants with higher attention to detail performed better on a detail-oriented task such as X-ray image screening.

These results offer insight into the psychology and skill-set that might predispose an individual take on security professions. The information acquired could also be used to improve training programs, job candidate profiling, and predictions of job performance.

Furthermore, the finding that some autism-associated skills can benefit security operations may open new employment opportunities to those with autism. Rusconi’s findings call for further exploration autistic individuals in security occupations, as well as the conditions that would best help them succeed.

“We are finding evidence that the positive traits of autism can predict better performance in security tasks,” said Rusconi. “This suggests a new way to inform personnel selection in security jobs and to improve the match between individual predispositions and job assignment.”

According to a National Autistic Society estimate, only 15% of autistic individuals have full-time employment, although many are both willing and able to work.

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