Cyber terrorism triggers severe psychological, physical stress, Haifa researchers shows

"Vast majority of public are complacent and, until they are exposed to a personal cyber attack, they see cyber terrorism as nothing more than an inconvenience," expert says.

April 6, 2015 06:02
3 minute read.

Computer keyboard [illustrative].. (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)


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Massive cyber terrorism that disrupts computers over the Internet – expected next week – poses a very serious threat and is not just an annoyance, according to researchers at the University of Haifa.

“If civilians cannot protect themselves from cyber attacks, then the government must protect us,” said the team, headed by Prof. Daphna Canetti of the university’s School of Political Science.

They said on Sunday that cyber terrorism causes significant stress and aggressive behavior, alongside computer users’ calls for protection and retaliation.

In light of hacker group Anonymous’s recurring threats against Israel, it is important to know that cyber terrorism causes more than inconvenience.

“There are, more importantly, grave physiological effects upon a person’s mind and body,” said Canetti.

In modern society, nearly every system is part of a cyber network – critical water and electrical facilities, banking networks, political institutions, and no small part of national security and military infrastructures.

Nevertheless, said Canetti, who was joined in the research by Prof. Michael Gross and Dr. Israel Waismel-Manor, “the vast majority of the public are complacent and, until they are themselves exposed to a personal cyber attack, they see cyber terrorism as nothing more than an inconvenience that disrupts their computer services, Facebook or gmail accounts, or, in the worst case, steals a credit card number. Most civilians do not see a cyber attack as one which can paralyze essential services for long periods of time or put people’s lives or health in danger.”

“It is enough to remember the 2008 cyber attacks in Estonia and Georgia or the Stuxnet worm that devastated Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, to understand that cyber terrorism can bring chaos and widespread harm.

In a simulation-based study, the research team provides the first glimpse of how cyber terrorism affects the psychological and physiological well-being of its victims.

Dozens of test subjects were asked to sit in front of a computer and answer a series of random questions. As they filled out the questionnaire, their computer was “hacked” by “Anonymous” without the test subjects realizing that the attack was part of the experiment. Suddenly, the frightening mask of Anonymous appeared with a warning that their site would crash and sensitive personal data would be publicized to the world at large.

After a few more moments, a split Skype screen captured the computer showing a hooded, masked figure typing an unseen message on one side and a live feed of the test subject/victim on the other.

Finally, in the third stage of the experiment, the test subjects received a private text message on their personal cellphones: “You’ve been hacked,” and “Anonymous has acquired your contact list.”

Immediately before and after the simulated cyber attacks, respondents gave the researchers a saliva sample to test the level of the hormone cortisol, a wellknown physiological indicator of stress.

The results of the experiment were striking and pointed to a significant increase in psychological and physiological stress among those who experienced the simulated cyber attack by Anonymous.

The same subjects also described how their sense of personal security was undermined and how they worried about future cyber attacks significantly far more than the control group, which did not experience the simulated attacks.

“It is important to see how individuals who had previously waved off the threat of cyber terrorism were now significantly more attuned to the danger,” noted Canetti.

The researchers further explained that cyber terrorism is easy for terrorists to exploit at any time or place, since all they need is a computer and not a sophisticated organization to plan and execute conventional terrorist attacks.

A few terrorists with computers can work hundreds of kilometers away from their target to disable critical infrastructures and bring substantial suffering to civilians.

In other studies, currently underway, Canetti, Gross and Waismel-Manor show how victims of cyber terrorism experience elevated levels of fear and anxiety even when they are not harmed physically themselves.

It was also not surprising to learn that victims of cyber terrorism demand vigorous state action and retaliation to protect them from cyber terrorism, whether by attacking terrorists with cyber weapons or by using planes or missiles to destroy the terrorists’ servers, cables, computers and other cyber facilities.

“The primary goal of terrorist organizations is not to cause their victims physical harm but to sow fear and trepidation in the heart of the civilian population.

Our study,” explained the three, “shows how a cyber attack by terrorists can achieve the same goal as conventional terrorism; and if the state does not take action against cyber terrorists, civilians will suffer significant harm.”

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