Jul 8, 2017

The human cost of cyber attacks

Sam Jayne / Axios

As governments, corporations, and hospitals around the world struggle to get back up and running after a string of recent ransomware attacks, scientists in Israel have uncovered another effect of cyber attacks: mass psychological distress.

  • The Financial Times reported the study's findings, which showed that participants' levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — increased after experiencing simulated cyber attacks.
  • Why it matters: The goal of hacks is generally to target institutions, not individuals, but this study indicates that cyber attacks can be as potent as terrorism in causing widespread fear.
  • The researchers wrote: "To accomplish this end, one need not commit horrific acts of murder. In a modern society it is enough attack the foundations of everyday life."
  • It's personal: Political scientists at the University of Haifa in Israel tested cortisol levels in participants' saliva after subjecting them to cyber attacks via computers and personal cell phones. "The text message to the participants' cell phones cemented the feeling among participants that they were the target of the cyberattack, not the lab computer," the study said.
  • The lasting damage: Researchers also found that subjects who had undergone the experiment were more fearful about the prospect of a cyber attack against Israel than those who had participated in the control group. Being exposed to cyber attacks once seemed to significantly increase panic about a repeat attack.
  • Focus on individuals: The study urged cyber security researchers to focus on the personal impact of attacks in addition to the national impact. The psychological stress of cyber attacks could affect individuals' decision-making, leading to "militant and aggressive attitudes" in the population, researchers said.
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