In our “information age,” technology has improved the lives of many people in significant ways, while connecting the human family as never before on a global scale. Although the possibilities are only limited by our imagination, so too are the dangers for abuse of these technologies. The abuse can vary greatly from online cheating and plagiarism, to cyberbullying, child pornography and enticement, sexting, phishing scams, trolling and griefing, to infections and hacking.
With the recent illegal malicious hacking into our systems at The Good Men Project, I would like to discuss briefly the cyber abuse of hacking and malware in the overall context of cyber psychology.
Computer Hacking and Cyber Warfare
Gary McKinnon, a man from Scotland, surreptitiously tapped into the United States’ military computer system allegedly in search of evidence of extraterrestrial life. By breaking into the computer system long distance from his home in London, McKinnon inadvertently exposed the massive flaws in the military’s security system, while the U.S. government claimed that he committed the largest military computer hacking action in U.S. history by cracking into 97 computers.
Illegal entry into a computer for the purpose of gaining unauthorized access, compromising, and taking over remote administrative control is referred to as “hacking.” Hackers, also known as “Crackers” (cyber-criminal hacker), comprise an expanding subculture referred to as the “computer underground.”
Most hackers, who possess expert skills in the nature and functions of the technology, take control of individual personal, business, corporate, and government computers and entire computer systems worldwide. The consequences range from minor annoyances to embezzlement of funds, destruction of computer systems, unauthorized retrieval of sensitive information and access codes, to computer “terrorism,” which can compromise electronic systems and jeopardize a company’s or nation’s security.
Computer terrorism is a form of Cyber Warfare, which is the waging of war in cyberspace through the use of electronic means. Acts of Cyber Warfare include, but are not limited to Cyber Espionage (the act of stealing classified information), Web Vandalism (acts that deface web sites), Propaganda (the swift transmission of political messages), Equipment Disruption (military, government, business), and Infrastructure Attack (communications, power, energy, water, transportation).
“Malware” Infections: Spyware, Viruses, Worms, and Trojan Horses
“Malware” is a term that encompasses a variety of computer software designed and transmitted to clandestinely gather information, or to compromise and corrupt individual computers and entire computer systems.
“Spyware,” for example, (sometimes referred to as “privacy-invasive software”) is secretly downloaded onto a personal computer to monitor and collect information about the user for the purpose of collecting various types of data including personal information, sites visited on the Internet, and messages sent and received. Sometimes employers or parents/guardians install Spyware to scrutinize the computer operations of employees or family members. Spyware has also been known to cause havoc by taking control of the computer away from the user by automatically installing unwanted software or changing computer settings.
Computer viruses work on software in much the same way as biological viruses do, by insinuating and replicating themselves into the system. Computer viruses comprise small pieces of software that infect by attaching to bona fide software, often replicating and dispersing to other systems while spreading destruction in their wake. Perpetrators formulate these destructive infections by designing computer programs, which they then transmit to unsuspecting victims. Often, they send viruses via email attachments that reproduce themselves by automatically dispatching to other people located in the recipients’ email log.
Worms are also small pieces of software, which reproduce on computer networks and exploit “holes” (hence “worms”) in security systems. Copies of worms inspect networks for additional computers, which also have security holes, and then replicate themselves on the new host machines.
Though they do not have the ability to reproduce themselves, Trojan Horses claim to be something such as a game that the unsuspecting user downloads, but in actuality they are computer programs that are intended to destroy or erase the hard drive of a computer when operated by the user.
There are a number of similarities and differences between face-to-face (f2f) or real life (RL) abuse and cyber abuse. Many of the differences with abuse of human-computer interactions generally center on what has come to be referred to as the “online disinhibition effect” coined by cyber psychologist, John Suler.
Users of technology often do things in cyberspace that they would not ordinarily do in f2f interactions. Firstly, cyberbullying is often even more invisible to adults than other forms of youthful bullying. In fact, i-SAFE found that 58% of respondents would not or have not told their parents or other adults about negative experiences online. Young people fear not only that reporting instances of cyberbullying would break a perceived peer norm of silence, which might increase the attacks on themselves or result in further isolation from peers, but also, they fear that adults might take away the technology from them as a way to end the attacks.
In addition, cyber abuse is a particularly cowardly form of abuse.
People who engage in cyber abuse can often hide in the anonymity of cyberspace. With anonymity, cyber abusers do not have to “own” their actions, and they often do not fear being punished. The technology can also shelter the user from tangible feedback about consequences of one’s actions, which can result in minimized empathy or remorse for the target of the bullying.
Even with some of the more advanced technologies, the sensory experience in cyberspace is limited. The user of the technologies cannot hear the intonation of the voice, or see the reactions, including body language, of the person on the other end of the “message.” Therefore, people who engage in cyber abuse can inflict pain without having to see the effects, which can result in a “deeper level of meanness.” People who cyber abuse can also communicate their hurtful messages to a wider audience with incredible speed.
With all of this taken into account, it becomes clearer that cyberspace can also inhibit a user’s sense of responsibility for actions online. Much of cyber time exists asynchronically, that is, people often do not interact in real time, which can add to the disinhibition effect when one does not have to deal with the immediate reactions of others.
Also, people can alter, change, or emphasize different aspects of their personalities or identities in cyberspace—they can reinvent themselves or show different personae (Latin for “that through which the sound comes” or the actor’s mask). Computers embody one of postmodernism’s important tenets by challenging, contesting, and ultimately destabilizing identities. Through computer-mediated interactions, individuals continually redeploy identities as fluid, changing, multifaceted, and non-essentialized.
Human-computer interactions permit individuals to engage in masquerade and change into a virtual costume known as an “avatar.” Communicating only with typed text, one has the option of being oneself, expressing only parts of one’s identity, assuming imagined identities, or remaining completely anonymous—in some cases, being almost invisible, as with the “lurker.”
In addition, cyberspace can have an equalizing effect.
People begin on a relatively level playing field—a virtual net democracy. Those of lesser social status or those who are the targets of abuse in RL can gain power, sometimes abusing others in cyberspace. In a virtual sense, then, cyberspace communication can alter perceptions by becoming a make-believe world, a dream-like experience, even a game in which the rules of RL no longer apply.
In psychoanalytic parlance, the concept of “transference” (as introduced by Sigmund Freud) refers to an individual’s unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. Often, and primarily on an unconscious level, the new information and communication technologies provide the (cyber)space for individuals to recreate and replay past relationships and also to satisfy unmet or thwarted needs from childhood.
Perpetrators of computer-generated abuse, and in particular, the production and transmission of computer viruses, may do so for a number of psychological motivations. Some may do so simply for the emotional “rush” or thrill, much the same way as would an individual who vandalizes or intentionally sets destructive fires. In addition, creating and transmitting a computer virus works much the same as an explosion for someone who finds joy in watching cars crash or bombs explode. Another reason is simply finding adventure in and claiming bragging rights for exploiting security holes in computer systems before someone else beat them to it.
Abuse of human-computer interactions can occur any time and any place.
Home, therefore, is no longer a refuge from this abuse for the perpetrators as well as those who are abused. Although this cyber abuse often occurs outside the parameters of the school grounds or workplace, it invariably affects the overall school and workplace climate and the individuals’ educational or work performance, as well as their short- and long-term psychological states. Since policies and legislation have not always caught up with cyber abuse, for it is often outside the legal reach of workplaces, schools, and school boards when it occurs outside of the workplace or school property.
Photo credit: Johan.V./Flickr