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Inside the Mind of a Cyberterrorist: A New Psychological Phenomenon

"You can basically rob a bank without actually robbing a bank.”

| 2 min read

"You can basically rob a bank without actually robbing a bank.”

Cyberterrorism is a relatively new era of crime, considering the Internet has only been around for a few decades now. It’s quite intriguing to consider that within those few decades, an entirely new criminal profile has emerged, along with a radically different psyche than previously observed in criminals.

Max Kilger, the director of the Data Analytics Program at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), led a study that delved into an aspect of cybersecurity that had rarely been explored before — the cyberterrorist’s mind. UTSA is home to the nation’s top cybersecurity program, according to the press release.

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For such a new field, Kilger has positioned himself as one of the leading experts. He has unique expertise in cybersecurity and social psychology, and is among the UTSA faculty leading the study of the human component of cyberterrorism. He also recently represented UTSA at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training facility in Turkey, spreading information about the psychology of cyberterrorists.

"I've spent a fair amount of time trying to get people to understand that the human component of cybersecurity is very important," Kilger said in a press release. "Understanding the motivations of cyberterrorists was a foreign concept until very recently and still is to many information security professionals.”

Kilger stresses that it’s important to understand that cyberterrorists are different from traditional terrorists — the motives likely steer clear of murder or suicide. Instead, cyberterrorists tend to be driven by ego, politics, entertainment, or the most common reason of all: money.

"You can basically rob a bank without actually robbing a bank," he said. "The risk of getting caught is fairly low and the chance of success is pretty high.”

Cyberterrorists can reap the rewards without putting themselves in the face of imminent danger. Much of the enticement also lies in the whole power trip of being in absolute control. As Kilger notes, a single person can effectively attack a nation-state. This dramatic shift in power can lure an individual in with the idea of overpowering an entire nation with a few taps of their fingertips

While most efforts to combat cyberterrorism focus more on the technological aspects of cybersecurity, it’s important to understand how a cyberterrorist thinks — just like law enforcement officials must understand the psyche of a murderer or a terrorist.

"Being able to project future scenarios is one of the most important aspects of cybersecurity," Kilger said. "A lot of information security efforts are defense-based and reactive. We need a more proactive approach.”

This proactive approach may lie in understanding how a cyberterrorist’s mind works. "As a social psychologist, you look at markers and clues. You analyze what's happened before and how that informs what's going on now," he said.

Clearly, the Internet is here to stay. Instead of focusing on defense tactics, it’s important to further research the psychology of cyberterrorism — if we can think like a cyberterrorist, perhaps we can stop cyberattacks dead in their tracks.

"We need more understanding of why these attacks occur and why people do them. Then we can start figuring out what their targets will be and what they're likely to do,” Kilger says. With that, we can stop them from happening.”

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