How do we win back digital adolescents recruited to the Dark Side during lockdown?

On Tuesday I am due to Chair a SASIG meeting on a programme of which most of those who complain about digital skills shortages will have never heard – Cyberchoices.

Why is it so important?

The text below is from the gateway page to Hacker Forum, one of the most welcoming, friendly and attractive “support” group for those stuck in their bedrooms, isolated from friends and school during lockdown and bored with home-learning:


Why aren’t you a member of this fun and exciting forum? 

Things you can do on HF

Start your education in cybersecurity

Play blackjack, slots of lottery games 

Learn to make an on-line income

Get help with your homework

Learn about cryptocurrency

Talk with your peers about life

Earn bytes for posting 

Make lifelong friends

Play our hack game

learn to write code

Use our onsite tools  


I have not included a link because visitors can expect to receive a stream of well-tailored invitations from potential “employers”, “friends” and “mentors” that put most mainstream careers and education services to shame. You can, however, find it via a simple search and log in via Facebook, Github and Twitter. And it is not the only one.

The description of the business model behind “Hacker Forum” (and its peers) was one of the most chilling parts of the presentation by Joseph Wise to SASIG on the path from Gaming to Hacking which I chaired earlier this week. There is a copy of Joseph’s presentation on the SASIG library.

Gaming has evolved over the 35 years since I helped organise the campaign to use copyright protection to prevent the nascent UK computing games industry from being bankrupted by software piracy. It is now very much a social media activity with chat rooms and competitions between teams.

In my opening comments to the SASIG meeting last week I referred to the consequences of Covid lockdown for my part of London – with youngsters suffering from on-line abuse in their bedrooms and street violence organised over social media when they go to the park. School is often the only safe place. We have little time left to organise summer schools and camps to occupy, remotivate and re-engage large numbers of adolescents whose education has been disrupted, hopes threatened, (if not actually destroyed) and whose parents cannot take them to let off steam at the beach or in the countryside.

I asked whether computer games were part of the answer and if so, how do we would harness the talents and motivations they develop before the players go to the dark side.  I did  not expect Joseph to give us the answers but he certainly set the scene.

This screenshot is from the business section of the Hacker Forum, advertising the “business opportunities” which pay for the operation. Joseph pointed that some of those known (but not yet physically located, let alone arrested) to be  running cybercrime enterprises with multi-million pound turnovers are to young to have a legitimate driving licence in the UK, let alone buy alcoholic drink in most US  States. There are links to similar sites from within innocently titled chats, including those attached to , for example You Tube videos, to enable most moderation services to be bypassed.

So how do we harness adolescent talent before children have passed the point of no return?

On 13th July I am due to chair a SASIG presentation by the Metropolitan Police Cyberchoices Team . You will find the national background on the Cyberchoices programme here on the NCA website  . The Prevent Officers in the Regional Organised Crime Units nominate those referred to them who are deemed suitable for rehabilitation onto a variety of programmes.

The largest and longest running is probably Hacked, piloted in Plymouth, greatly expanded earlier this year to handle those nominated via the SWROCU and now being rolled out nationally via the Cyberhubs. But is only one of several such programmes.

SEROCU organises uncharged  webinars using material from the SW Grid For Learning (which hosts the UK Safer Internet Centre) and  Cyber Champions lesson plans. They are currently looking for  partners to assist with apprenticeships, summer schools, work experience and mentorship so that there is more depth to the positive diversions and pathways available locally. Those interested in helping should contact [email protected] .

London is different.

The MPS team has worked on schools programmes for some years with London Grid for Learning on events and on the development of new materials, such as a new collection of materials on Money Mules . Meanwhile if anyone would like to support the Lambeth summer camp, organised by the local schools officers with  workshops on mobile phone security please contact me via the e-mail address on the Norwood Community Safety Partnership page

The approaches in other parts of the UK are different again but there are common features and lessons.

The main common feature is the small size of the support teams and the lack of contact with the mainstream recruitment and careers operations, including those run by Careers and Enterprise Company with the local LEPs. This needs to addressed, with industry support, as part an overall rethink of cyber-talent recruitment to break out of the current introverted spiral.

Some important lessons have come out of the programmes that have been running longest and have experience of placing “graduates” into roles that make full use of their talents.

  • Recognition and respect for the unusual talent of the individual, plus a genuine desire to harness their talent to the common good, is usually a bigger motivator than mere money.
  • Pastoral care can be critical to being able to participate in the first place and remains so, albeit to a lesser degree, as those with “extreme talent” transition to employment.
  • The programmes are all too often playing catch up, trying to reverse choices made at a surprisingly young age.
  • Frameworks for “ethical co-operation” and disentangling social and commercial objectives and funding are critical to setting realistic expectations and demonstrating, not just achieving, success.

Please join us on the 13th. Then think how YOU can help your local Cyberchoices team – including by discussing how to legitimately delve into world of gaming and associated social media to identify, befriend and motivate the talent YOU want – before it goes to the dark side.

I will stop there before going onto the need join up political and professional debate in this space.

I would only ask you to reserve the afternoon of 9th September in your diary for the inaugural Lord Renwick memorial lecture to be delivered on-line by Vint Cerf, co-founder of the Internet, on the theme, “Wrestling with Alligators: Delivering on the Digital Promise”.

The text of the advance notice is ” Lowering barriers to access to digital technology, the Internet and the World Wide Web have enabled harmful behaviours ranging from individuals to nation states. The conundrum we face is how to retain all the benefits while defending against abuse.  We have been “admiring” the problem for many years but it is time now to adopt steps to deal with it.

To receive details in due course, please email [email protected].

It is indeed a fitting theme for the first  Renwick Memorial lecture. Lord Renwick raised the need to harness diverse talent in the House of Lords before Tim Berners Lee joined CERN. He also “helped” Nortel organise an event on “envisioning the future” before the Atlanta Olympics (1996) had demonstrated that IP would be at the heart of the on-line future. We were told that after the Atlanta Olympics the IETF would have to overcome  three challenges to enable it to fulfil its business and mass market potential. They were Security, Security and Security.



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