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A new experimental study: A Virtual Reality Experiment on Terrorism, Trains and Total Surveillance

By Amit Cohen, Keren L.G. Snider, Giulia Dal Bello, Guy Baratz, BĂ©atrice S. Hasler, Daphna Canetti

Does exposure to cyber terrorism prompt people to support or oppose surveillance policies?

To answer this question we ran an experiment based on exposure to an original 3D Virtual Reality simulation of a train station at which participants were exposed to an explosion of a train resulting from two types of lethal terrorist attacks (cyber or conventional). We then evaluated support for surveillance policies such as monitoring private social media conversation, installing CCTV cameras, and use of data collection by the government.

Lab in a pub!

Due to COVID-19 restrictions we ran the experiment in a pub in Tel Aviv. Participants arrived at the experiment site and were asked to wear a VR headset and then found themselves in a train station. They could look around and see a few other people who were also waiting for the train. While waiting at this virtual train platform, participants heard a voice announcement of the approaching train. However, the train derailed off the tracks and turned over.

Following the derailment, the participants saw fire, smoke, heard people screaming and then the screen went dark. The VR experience faded to black and a floating screen of N12 channel news reported the details of the attack.

What did we find?

Results showed that threat perception is key to understanding how exposure translates into support for various types of intrusive surveillance. Nonetheless, despite serious concerns about cyber terrorism and the threat perception it elicits, these are not sufficient to prompt public support for intrusive surveillance methods. In the face of lethal cyberattacks, however, government surveillance may be a necessary tool that strikes an equilibrium between civil liberties and personal security.