Examining Willingness to Attack Critical Infrastructure On and Off-line

The global adoption of technology over the last two decades has radically altered the way individuals, businesses, and governments communicate. Access to high speed wireless connectivity, tablet PCs, and smart phones enable individuals to be in constant contact with others in near-real time and access nearly any data source of interest. As a consequence, cyberspace has substantive value as a target for either political expression or ideologically motivated attacks and social conflict. The Internet and computer-mediated communications, like Facebook, provide individuals with an outlet to express dissent with policies and practices of their own government or those of foreign nations. These technologies also allow nation states’ most vulnerable and critical systems to be attacked with greater secrecy and fewer resources than might otherwise be required off-line.

Policy-makers have increasingly focused on deterring cyber-attacks performed by state-sponsored actors, though there has been less emphasis placed on the role of actors with no ties or sponsorship from a nation or military group. Non-nation-state sponsored actors can leverage technological resources as a force multiplier to engage in non-violent actions like protest, or serious forms of violence such as targeted attacks against infrastructure with a greater magnitude than what may otherwise be possible through real world protest and political action. These conditions have given rise to what Dorothy Denning called the “civilian cyber-warrior” who can operate with no state-sponsorship to attack various resources within their own government or a foreign nation due to the power differential provided by the Internet and CMCs.

Few researchers have considered what individual factors may predict participation as a cyber-warrior against either their home country or another nation. Furthermore, it is unclear what relationships may be evident in the predictors of both non-violent and violent activities in physical and virtual action. Thus, Max Kilger and I explored these issues. We used a survey administered to a sample of 353 undergraduate and graduate students at a large Midwestern university in the spring of 2010 to assess these issues. The respondents were 60% male, 89% domestic/US born students with an average age of 22.

We asked respondents about their willingness to engage in politically motivated behaviors in the real world and on-line as well as against their home government and a fictitious foreign nation titled Bagaria. The behaviors ranged from writing letters to participation in political protests to serious acts of violence such as damaging a building with an explosive device. Similarly, respondents were given options for on-line behavior involving posting messages on Facebook or Twitter, defacing websites, to compromising government servers and even compromising power grids and nuclear plants. The majority of respondents reported a willingness to write letters in the real world or post messages on Facebook or Twitter. A very small proportion of respondents were willing to engage in serious acts of violence in the real world or critical infrastructure in cyberspace regardless of the target. In fact, less than two percent of the sample would utilize explosives to engage in an act of violence in the real world. Less than two percent would also attack critical infrastructure on-line against domestic targets in keeping with the generally small number of individuals who appear willing to perform acts of terror or serious political violence.

We developed logistic regression models to identify what behavioral, attitudinal, and demographic factors were associated with individual willingness to engage in multiple forms of cyberattack. In the model for attacks against a person’s home government, those who reported antagonistic attitudes toward minority groups and the belief that those groups should be held down were more likely to engage in multiple forms of attack. In addition, those who engaged in media and software piracy, and were willing to engage in multiple forms of physical protest behaviors were more likely to engage in cyberattacks. Respondents from foreign nations were also more likely to take virtual action in the domestic model. Within the model for attacks against the foreign government of Bagaria, those who engaged in piracy, were willing to engage in physical attacks, and males were more likely to engage in multiple forms of cyberattack.

The preliminary results suggest that there may be generally few predictors to help identify willingness to engage in political attacks. Specifically, the relationship identified between willingness to engage in cyberattacks and physical attacks suggests that there is a closer link between on and off-line acts of terrorism than originally thought. The significance of participation in digital piracy may provide support for the argument that individuals need not have high degrees of technical skill in order to have an interest in politically motivated cyberattacks. For instance, members of Anonymous commonly use the simple point-and-click Denial of Service Attack tool called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) in attacks against various targets. Thus, individuals must simply have a desire to express themselves on-line and be willing to break the law in support of their goal.

These findings are extremely preliminary and require substantive additional study in order to clarify the relationships identified. For instance, developing diverse samples culled from the general population of various countries would greatly improve the generalizability of these findings. Administering the survey in countries with different political systems would also improve our understanding of any differences in the perception of the value of physical attacks relative to virtual attacks where anonymity may help to mask the risk of detection from restrictive governments.

The research discussed in this blog post appeared in the work below:

Holt, Thomas J., and Max Kilger.  2012.  Examining Willingness to Attack Critical Infrastructure On and Off-line.”  Crime & Delinquency, 58(5): 798-822. 

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