Does Cyber-Terrorism Terrorize? Hormones Suggest It Does

Call me a wimp, but this cyber-terrorism experiment creeped me out.

Posted Feb 08, 2015

I got creeped out just reading about this study. And I knew it was only a lab experiment on the effects of cyber-terrorism!

Imagine sitting at a computer answering a bunch of questions, and a graphic of guy in a mask and hood takes over the computer with the message:

“We are Anonymous. Information belongs to everyone including the information on your computer. We do not forget or forgive!!! In a few moments we will hack into your cell phone!!!”

Then you see a real guy on screen in a hood silently typing away on a computer with a split screen showing you.

Copyright: Daphna Canetti, Michael L. Gross, & Israel Waismel-Manor.

Next thing you know, your personal phone is buzzing with a text message from an unknown number saying: “You have been hacked!!” And the people running the experiment tell you none of the other volunteers in the experiment had this happen to them.

Call me a wimp, but this creeped me out.

THIS COULDN’T HAPPEN TO YOU?

You don’t think something like this could happen in real life? Ask the 3,800 employees of Sony Pictures, including some of its stars, who got caught up in the international political intrigue over Sony’s movie The Interview, a “comedy” about the assassination of North Korea’s leader. 

According to news reports, computer hackers, allegedly from the North Korean government, stole employees’ names, birthdates, Social Security numbers, salary information, performance reviews, and email as well as vital company information like profit-and-loss statements and movie scripts. Much of the information, which was contained in around 35 million files, became publicly available when the hackers posted it online.

BUT NOBODY GETS “HURT”…

But cyber-terrorism isn’t bad, because nobody gets shot or blown up. Not bad? How about the Sony employee who found that someone was applying for a credit card using his name and bank information? Or the Sony executive who was told by the hackers to sign a statement damning the company and “If you don’t, not only you but your family will be in danger.”

Or, to take it out of the Sony context, the large number of Israeli citizens who received text messages from Palestinian hacktivists warning that their group “has chosen you to be the next Shalit..Be Ready.” Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped and held by militants for more than five years. 

OR HOW ABOUT THIS?

Back to the study that creeped me out. It was conducted by Daphna Canetti and her colleagues Michael Gross and Israel Waismel-Manor at the University of Haifa. In addition to what I described above, throughout the experiment they also measured their subjects’ changes in stress using salivary samples of the stress hormone cortisol and confirmed it by looking at changes in anxiety using a questionnaire.

Although the study was small and far from definitive, they found that the experimental subjects who experienced the threatening messages showed elevated stress according to their cortisol levels and greater anxiety according to their questionnaire responses than those who did not get threatened. So in this case at least, cyber-terrorism negatively affected people both physiologically and psychologically.

HAPPY TERRORISTS AND “HAPPY” VICTIMS?

My initial response to this was, oh great, another weapon for the bad guys to use against us. Although it’s unlikely to kill or maim its victims, cyber-terrorism puts negative physiological and psychological stress on people. Further, it’s accessible to a wider range of terrorists because it doesn’t require a cadre of gun- or bomb-toting predators to carry out. A few smart people with computers and an internet connection can wreak a lot of havoc on other individuals and critical infrastructure like communication networks, banks, and public facilities.

On the other hand, it is unlikely to kill or maim its victims. Stress, anxiety, and inconvenience are not good, but they are usually survivable. So maybe potential victims could see this as the evolution toward a less lethal, although more frequent, form of terrorism.

In some regards this logic is creepy—more terrorist weapons equal an improved terror situation. But terrorism is a complex and enduring problem. Some experts think it’s here to stay for many lifetimes to come. Sometimes creepy is the best you can do.

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For more information: Canetti, Daphna, Michael L. Gross, & Israel Waismel-Manor (2014). "Immune from Cyber-Fire? The Psychological & Physiological Effects of Cyberwar." In Binary Bullets: The Ethics of Cyberwarfare. Edited by Fritz Allhoff, Adam Henschke, and Bradley Jay Strawser. Oxford: Oxford University Press forthcoming.

Canetti, Daphna, Israel Waismel-Manor, Michael L. Gross, Asaf Levanon, & Hagit Cohen. “Streaming Terror: Cyber-Terrorism and Its Global Threat.” Unpublished manuscript. 

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at GreggRMurray.com

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