PhotoHackers are a special breed -- smart, resourceful, and often thinking outside the box. Unfortunately, they cost businesses billions of dollars and can make consumers' lives difficult when they steal their identities.

British researchers wondered what makes hackers different from other smart technology experts and what makes them do what they do. Their study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, focuses on a characteristic called “systemizing,” which they say provides insight into what makes 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 Abertay University in Dundee, UK, "In particular, we found that this drive is positively and specifically correlated with code-breaking performance."

Ethical hackers

Admittedly, it's hard to recruit outlaw hackers to take part in a scientific study. So the researchers recruited a number of “ethical” hackers, who don't break the law but help business and government institutions improve the security of their systems by showing how they can be compromised.

Rusconti's team found that the “ethical” hackers recruited for the study performed far above average when asked to break a series of sophisticated codes.

The actual test was designed to assess systemizing skills. The participants also self-reported characteristics that suggested a strong tendency towards systemizing.

The team went a step further, profiling participants for autistic-like behaviors and skills. They did so on a hunch, since systemizing is a common trait among people with autism.

None of the participants were autistic, but many displayed higher scores for attention to detail, another trait associated with autism. However, people with stronger systemizing scores were better at code breaking. Those scoring higher in attention to detail did better on detail-oriented tasks.

Helpful information

What's the point? Rusconti says the results could be helpful in training programs, job candidate profiling, and predictions of job performance. It might help security companies obtain better insight into who is likely to excel in a security career. She says it could even open up new career opportunities for people with autism.

"We are finding evidence that the positive traits of autism can predict better performance in security tasks," Rusconi said.

She notes that a National Autistic Society estimate indicates only 15% of autistic people have full-time employment, even though a large number are both willing and able to work.

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