Virtual Terror is Not So Virtual: Exposure to Cyber Terrorism Triggers Severe Psychological and Physical Stress

In light of Anonymous’ threat to mount a massive cyber-attack and electronic Holocaust on Israel, a group of cyber terror researchers at the University of Haifa warn that cyber terrorism does not end with minor internet disruptions. Rather cyber terror poses an extremely serious threat. “If civilians cannot protect themselves from cyber-attacks, then the government must protect us”, they declare*Cyber Terrorism Article Photo 2

Just as they did during the latest war in Gaza in 2014, cyber renegades at Anonymous are once again threatening Israel with an electronic Holocaust. Although they are virtual attacks, the danger and subsequent harm are very real. Exposure to cyber-attacks, warn researchers from the University of Haifa in a recent study, causes significant stress and aggressive behavior, alongside calls for protection and retaliation.

In light of Anonymous’ recurring threats against Israel, it is important to know that cyber terror causes more than inconvenience. “There are, more importantly, grave physiological effects upon a person’s mind and body,” says the lead investigator, Prof. Daphna Canetti of the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa.

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, say researchers Prof. Canetti, 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 their current simulation-based study, Canetti, Gross and Waismel-Manor provide the first glimpse of how cyber terrorism affects the psychological and physiological well-being of its victims.Cyber Tererorism Article Photo 1

In their study, 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 there 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 cell phones: “You’ve been hacked,” and “Anonymous has acquired your contact list.” Immediately before and after the cyber-attacks, respondents gave the researchers a saliva sample to test the level of the hormone Cortisol, a well-known 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 who 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,” says Prof. 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/retaliation to protect them from cyber terrorism whether by attacking terrorist 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,” explain Canetti, Gross and Waismel-Manor, “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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