Don't get hacked! Research shows how much we ignore online warnings

November 20, 2014

Say you ignored one of those "this website is not trusted" warnings and it led to your computer being hacked. How would you react? Would you:

A. Quickly shut down your computer?

B. Yank out the cables?

C. Scream in cyber terror?

For a group of college students participating in a research experiment, all of the above were true. These gut reactions (and more) happened when a trio of Brigham Young University researchers simulated hacking into study participants' personal laptops.

"A lot of them freaked out--you could hear them audibly make noises from our observation rooms," said Anthony Vance, assistant professor of Information Systems. "Several rushed in to say something bad had happened."

Fortunately for the students, what they saw--a message from an "Algerian hacker" with a laughing skull and crossbones, a 10-second countdown timer and the words "Say goodbye to your computer"--wasn't real. What was real was that all of the participants got the message by ignoring web security warnings.

Vance and BYU colleagues Bonnie Anderson and Brock Kirwan carried out the experiment to better understand how people deal with online security risks, such as malware. They found that people say they care about keeping their computers secure, but behave otherwise--in this case, they plowed through malware warnings.

"We see these messages so much that we stop thinking about them," Vance said. "In a sense, we don't even see them anymore, and so we often ignore them and proceed anyway."

For the study, researchers first asked participants how they felt about online security. Then, in a seemingly unrelated task, participants were told to use their own laptops to log on to a website to categorize pictures of Batman as animated or photographed. (Students were told their image classification project was being used to check the accuracy of a computer algorithm to do the same task.)

As participants clicked through the image pages, warning signs would randomly pop up indicating malware issues with the site they were accessing. If they ignored the message enough times, they were "hacked."

"A lot of people don't realize that they are the weakest link in their computer security," said Kirwan, assistant professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at BYU. "The operating systems we use have a lot of built-in security and the way for a hacker to get control of your computer is to get you to do something."

Kirwan's role in the research added another fascinating layer: Using his expertise in neuroscience, Kirwan carried out an additional experiment on subjects using EEG machines to measure brain responses to risk.

While results showed that people say they care about web security but behave like they don't; they do behave in-line with what their brains say. In other words, people's brainwaves better predict how risky they are with online security.

"We learned that brain data is a better predictor of security behavior than a person's own response," Vance said. "With neuroscience, we're trying to understand this weakest link and understand how we can fortify it."

Anderson, an associate professor of Information Systems, echoed the need to do so, quoting security expert Bruce Schneier: "Only amateurs attack machines; professionals target people."
-end-
The folks at the National Science Foundation agree too and think the BYU trio are onto something. Anderson, Kirwan and Vance recently earned a $300,000 grant from the NSF for continued research of security behavior. The current study was published recently in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems.

David Eargle, a former graduate student at BYU and now a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, served as a co-author on the paper.

Brigham Young University

Related Neuroscience Articles from Brightsurf:

Researchers rebuild the bridge between neuroscience and artificial intelligence
In an article in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers reveal that they have successfully rebuilt the bridge between experimental neuroscience and advanced artificial intelligence learning algorithms.

The evolution of neuroscience as a research
When the first issue of the JDR was published, the field of neuroscience did not exist but over subsequent decades neuroscience has emerged as a scientific field that has particular relevance to dentistry.

Diabetes-Alzheimer's link explored at Neuroscience 2019
Surprising links exist between diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, and researchers are beginning to unpack the pathology that connects the two.

Organoid research revealed at Neuroscience 2019
Mini-brains, also called organoids, may offer breakthroughs in clinical research by allowing scientists to study human brain cells without a human subject.

The neuroscience of autism: New clues for how condition begins
UNC School of Medicine scientists found that a gene mutation linked to autism normally works to organize the scaffolding of brain cells called radial progenitors necessary for the orderly formation of the brain.

Harnessing reliability for neuroscience research
Neuroscientists are amassing the large-scale datasets needed to study individual differences and identify biomarkers.

Blue Brain solves a century-old neuroscience problem
In a front-cover paper published in Cerebral Cortex, EPFL's Blue Brain Project, a Swiss Brain Research Initiative, explains how the shapes of neurons can be classified using mathematical methods from the field of algebraic topology.

Characterizing pig hippocampus could improve translational neuroscience
Researchers have taken further steps toward developing a superior animal model of neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury and epilepsy, according to a study of miniature pigs published in eNeuro.

The neuroscience of human vocal pitch
Among primates, humans are uniquely able to consciously control the pitch of their voices, making it possible to hit high notes in singing or stress a word in a sentence to convey meaning.

Study tackles neuroscience claims to have disproved 'free will'
For several decades, some researchers have argued that neuroscience studies prove human actions are driven by external stimuli -- that the brain is reactive and free will is an illusion.

Read More: Neuroscience News and Neuroscience Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.