Teenage hackers will be sent to cyber crime rehab camps to transform them into security experts under a new National Crime Agency scheme.
The law enforcement agency will enrol teenagers who have been found committing cyber offences onto a programme designed to stop them from entering serious crime.
It comes amid growing fears that the skills of cyber criminals are outpacing the talents of the industry, which has struggled to attract new talent.
Teenagers who have been served with cautions or cease and desist orders will be invited to attend a workshop at the NCA as part of its Prevent scheme.
Seven young men recently attended the first weekend of workshops under the rehab programme, which involved learning security skills and ways to earn money legitimately through their talents.
The offenders had been arrested or visited by the NCA for committing cyber offences at home or school, including putting servers offline.
One of the group said he had begun experimenting when he accidentally hacked a primary school network, locking users out of the system. He later put his skills to malicious use, saying it was a method of getting away from bullying at school.
The group were sent to a weekend camp in Bristol earlier this month.
“Cyber crime has become easier to commit with the proliferation of easy-to-access tools, tutorials and online forums to share idea,” said Richard Jones, Prevent manager at the NCA.
“Even the most basic forms of cyber crime can have huge impacts and the NCA and police will arrest and prosecute offenders, which can be devastating to their future.
“That means there is great value in reaching young people before they become involved in cyber crime, and even those already on the fringes of criminality – when their skills can still be a force for good.”
The idea for the scheme came from research that looked at the abilities of illegal hackers in comparison with those who worked in cyber security. It found that those on the right side of the law were very similar to the other group, but at some point a parent, guardian or teacher had intervened to put them on a law-abiding path.
The NCA’s Prevent team has previously worked with young cyber criminals who have been convicted of crimes, served sentences and been reformed.
Cyber crime has become one of the most serious threats to the UK, with high profile attacks harming the NHS, businesses and the Government in recent months. Businesses and security experts welcomed the move.
Mike Simmonds, chief executive of Axial Security Systems, said: “The rehabilitation camp needs to create an environment where doing the right thing is even cooler than doing the opposite.
“Ultimately the rehabilitation process can help drive these youngsters to become an asset to our society and businesses, by protecting them from the danger of a future cyber-attack.”
If the trial of the scheme is successful, it will be rolled out across the country for other young hackers.