Search Engines as a tool for law enforcement to prevent youth cybercrime

Sari Latomaa Viivi Lehtinen Julkaisupäivä 8.3.2024 15.06 Blogit

Finnish law enforcement is actively working to prevent cybercrime committed by young people and during the past years has, for example, used Google Ads as a tool to warn youth about the illegality and consequences of cybercrime. Combatting cybercrime, however, is not just a police matter, but crime prevention requires efforts from technology companies as well. 

Cybercrime has become a worldwide threat that can cause severe harm, not only to individuals and companies, but also undermine the stability of the entire society. Youth are disproportionally represented in international cybercrime statistics, and a recent youth survey on cybercrime reveals how common illegal online behavior is amongst youth.

Nowadays, tools and instructions to commit cybercrimes, such as DDoS attacks, are easily available for children and youngsters also through major search engines such as Google. Search engines also suggest search results from entities providing criminal tools, without any warning about the illegality or harmful consequences of cybercrime.

Law enforcement is actively searching for more effective ways to prevent youth cybercrime. Preventative work, however, requires new tools to reach potential offenders. Online interventions aim to directly in an online envi-ronment reach youth who are at risk of engaging in cybercriminal acts. Interventions are not only a part of ad-vancing preventative work, but also a part of international collaboration.

Positive results from Google Ads campaigns in Finland and internationally

The Finnish National Bureau of Investigations (NBI) has participated in two international offender prevention campaigns on Google Ads between 2021–2023, targeting youth who are using Google to search for cybercrime related terms in categories of Distributed Denial of Service attacks (DDoS), illegal hacking, or Remote Access Trojans (RAT). The target group of the campaigns were young people between the ages of 12–25, who based on their actions and interests are at risk of committing cybercrimes.

The first campaign was also tested on Bing and DuckDuckGo. The second campaign focused specifically on searches related to DDoS attacks on Google. The Finnish campaigns were executed by the NBI's Cybercrime Exit project – partially funded by the European Union – which pilots, trains, and develops methods to break the cycle of youth cybercrime.  

During the Google Ads campaigns, users searching for cybercrime related terms were shown a prevent mes-sage from law enforcement, reminding users that DDoS attacks, malicious hacking, and using Remote Access Trojans is illegal, and guiding users to the police campaign page to find out more information. The goal was to provide young people with tools to make informed choices online, by educating them about the line between legal and illegal activities and consequences of cybercrime, as well as offering legal alternatives to enhance their skills. 

Within a few months, the campaigns by the Finnish NBI gained over 58,000 impressions and 3,000 visits to the police website. Internationally, the campaigns resulted in over 566,000 impressions and 29,000 clicks. Out of the participating countries, the Finnish campaigns best reached the intended target audience. In addition to Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal, among others, participated in the campaigns.

Efforts from IT-companies are needed

Campaign results demonstrate, that Finnish users also actively search for cybercrime related terms on Google. From law enforcement perspective, Google Ads has therefore proven to be a relevant way to raise awareness and support making informed choices in an online environment, where guidance between legal and illegal activi-ties is conspicuous by its absence. Cybercrime investigations are often lengthy and require extensive expertise. Intervening as early as possible, before the damages become uncontrollable, is the most cost-effective and low-effort way to prevent the cycle of crime.

With cybercrime on the rise, investing in preventative measures is crucial. Offender prevention and educating about cybercrime and its consequences enable us to raise the threshold of cyber offending and cost-effectively save society's resources. Preventive work, however, requires efforts not only from law enforcement, but also from the private sector. IT-companies play a central role in our digitalized society, and most of our digital lives happen on various platforms and services provided by IT-companies.

Therefore, large tech companies, such as Google, also have a unique position and responsibility to enhance online safety. By investing in cybercrime of-fender prevention, tech companies can prevent misuse of their platforms, and take responsibility for creating a safer digital environment. 

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