Cyber-rehabilitation camps are currently being trialled in the UK, with officials from the National Crime Agency (NCA) hoping that teenagers caught launching cyberattacks could be persuaded to put their digital hacking skills to better use – before it is too late.
The first two-day camp, catering for seven offenders, was held in Bristol earlier this month, the BBC reported. The teenagers received advice from computer security experts and careers guidance specialists while being lectured about the responsible use of cyber skills.
The NCA's "Prevent" team not only prosecutes but also attempts to rehabilitate, arguing the early signs of criminal hacking are often easy to miss.
Experts claim lack of a social circle and an interest in modifying computer games can lead down a dark path.
"The weekend was designed to do a few things but mostly it was to positively divert those that could be putting their skills to a more positive and legal use," said NCA officer Ethan Thomas.
If the test is deemed a success, the BBC reported it could soon be rolled out across the UK.
The seven people at the camp had either been arrested or visited at home by British authorities, accused of launching cyberattacks on servers or defacing websites. In each case, the teenagers had been spotted using digital tools that broke UK computer misuse legislation.
The experts who talked to the young offenders give them coding challenges and carried out hacking games designed to resemble a real-world penetration testing environment.
It remains to be seen if teenagers sent to cyber-rehabilitation will listen.
Speaking to the BBC, Thomas said the skills used in criminal hacking can easily be put to better use and said the attendees would now be monitored to see if their online behaviour changes.
"If you have good cyber-skills there are many, many qualifications you can take," he said.
Following the camp, one attendee said: "Now I know cybersecurity exists [as a job] it sounds like it would be something I really, really want to go into. You get the same rush, the same excitement, but you are using it for fun still, but it is legal and you get paid. It's every kind of benefit."
"Cybercrime can wreck lives and futures," the NCA tweeted on 25 July. "We want to help young hackers make the right cyber choices."
While law enforcement does not release specific "profiles" of criminal hackers, many of those detained are both teenage and male. One analysis of investigations involving the NCA's National Cyber Crime Unit from 2015 found the average age of suspects to be just 17.