The psychological effects of cyber terrorism


When ordinary citizens think of cyber threats, most are probably worried about their passwords and banking details, not a terrorist attack. The thought of a shooting in a mall or a bombing at an airport is probably more frightening than a cyber breach. Yet terrorists aim for mental as well as physical destruction, and our research has found that, depending on who the attackers and the victims are, the psychological effects of cyber threats can rival those of traditional terrorism.

Michael L. Gross | Daphna Canetti | Dana R. Vashdi

Cyber aggression has become a daily fact of life in the 21st century, yet for most people it’s still only a reality in the form of cyber crime – hackers targeting financial information or other personal details. Politically motivated attacks might threaten them as well, but they tend to be the concern of governments and corporations rather than ordinary citizens. The thought of a terrorist shooting in a mall or bombing in an airport probably seems far more frightening to the average person than Russian hackers disrupting government networks in Estonia or Anonymous breaking into the police department of Ferguson, Missouri. Cyber terrorists, after all, have yet to actually kill or injure anyone. Yet our research has found this perception of cyber aggression might not be entirely accurate. The aim of terrorism, after all, is not just physical destruction, and depending on who the attackers and the victims are, the psychological effects of cyber terrorism can be just as powerful as the real thing.

Defining cyber terrorism

 People face cyber aggression on an almost daily basis. Hackers appropriate, erase, or ransom data, defraud bank customers, steal identities, or plant malevolent viruses. In many cases, hackers are criminals out for pecuniary gain. But sometimes their motives are political. Some are “hacktivists,” or cyber activist groups, like Anonymous, others are terror groups like Hamas or Islamic State, and still others are agents of national states like Iran, North Korea, or Russia. They are not usually after money but pursue a political agenda to foment for social change, gain political concessions, or cripple an enemy. Sometimes their means are peaceful, but other times they are vicious and violent. The lines often blur. Anonymous will hack the Ferguson police department just as it will initiate an “electronic Holocaust” against Israel in support of the Palestinian cause (Rogers 2014). Islamic activists will use the Internet not only to recruit members and raise funds for social welfare projects but also to steal money for terrorist activities or disseminate information to stoke fear and demoralize a civilian population. States will pursue online espionage but also wreak havoc by crashing multiple systems – as did the Russians, allegedly, in Estonia in 2007, with mass denial-of-service attacks on government sites, and in Ukraine in 2016, with cyber attacks on the airport and power grid (Polityuk 2016).


 Underlying many of these attacks is terrorism: an attempt to extract political concessions by instilling fear in the civilian population. In this way, cyber terrorism is no different from conventional terrorism. Yet cyber terrorism is far more subtle. To date, cyber terrorists have neither killed nor injured anyone. Nor have cyber terrorists successfully destroyed any critical infrastructures. Whether this is due to the offensive inadequacies of the terrorists or the superior defensive capabilities of the United States and its allies, experts have yet to decide.

But as the war on cyber terrorism continues, it is increasingly clear that protecting vital national interests is only half the battle. Security experts rightly worry about defending transportation networks, refineries, dams, military installations, hospitals, banks, and government offices from cyber attack just as they worry about defending the same facilities from terrorist bombs or ballistic missiles (Lewis 2002). Yet lost in the haze of cyber warfare is the human dimension. While scholars and policy makers raise concerns about the dangers that cyber terrorism holds for national security, we know little about its effects on human security.

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