How self-control can curb cyber crime

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People who have low self-control — indulging in impulse online shopping, downloading music and compulsive email use — are more likely to become easy targets of cyber attacks, a study warns.

Scientists from the Michigan State University in the US examined the personality traits and behaviours — both obvious and subtle — that lead someone to fall victim to malware attacks.

“People who show signs of low self-control are the ones we found more susceptible to malware attacks,” said Tomas Holt, lead author of the research.

“An individual’s characteristics are critical in studying how cybercrime perseveres, particularly the person’s impulsiveness and the activities that they engage in while online that have the greatest impact on their risk,” Holt said.

Low self-control comes in many forms. This type of person shows signs of short-sightedness, negligence, physical versus verbal behavior and an inability to delay gratification, Holt said.

“Self-control is an idea that’s been looked at heavily in criminology in terms of its connection to committing crimes,” Holt said.

“But we find a correlation between low self-control and victimisation; people with this trait put themselves in situations where they are near others who are motivated to break the law,” he said.

The research, published in Social Science Computer Review, assessed the self-control of nearly 6,000 survey participants, as well as their computers’ behaviour that could indicate malware and infection.

To measure victimisation, researchers asked participants a series of questions about how they might react in certain situations. For computer behaviour, they asked about their computer having slower processing, crashing, unexpected pop-ups and the homepage changing on their web browser.

“The internet has omnipresent risks. In an online space, there is constant opportunity for people with low self-control to get what they want, whether that is pirated movies or deals on consumer goods,” Holt said.

Hackers and cybercriminals know that people with low self-control are the ones who will be scouring the internet for what they want — or think they want — which is how they know what sites, files or methods to attack, researchers said.

Understanding the psychological side of self-control and the types of people whose computers become infected with malware — and who likely spread it to others — is critical in fighting cybercrime, Holt said. What people do online matters, and the behavioural factors at play are entirely related to risks.

“There are human aspects of cybercrime that we don’t touch because we focus on the technical side to fix it,” Holt said.

“But if we can understand the human side, we might find solutions that are more effective for policy and intervention,” he said.

Looking ahead, Holt hopes to help break the silos between computer and social sciences to think holistically about fighting cybercrime.

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