The cultural impact of cyber crime

Jun 06, 2016, 1:43 PM EDT
“Invisible Digital Rebels” (Source: Surian Soosay/flickr)
“Invisible Digital Rebels” (Source: Surian Soosay/flickr)

Cyber crime affects every aspect of an economy —jobs are created to combat it, others are eliminated because of the financial ramifications of digital attacks, and others still become obsolete. Equally important, if overlooked, however, are the cultural implications of cyber crime and swiftly developing, and invariably vulnerable, digital economies. Of course, employment is a good place to start. A McAfee report from 2014 emphasizes that developed countries stand to greatly suffer at the hands of cyber crime in terms of employment. This has cultural consequences as well, ranging from impacts on health to increases in street crime to distrust of government.

But outside of cyber crime’s obvious economic damage, the growth of digital vulnerabilities and the perception of increased threats can impact societal mindsets. Blouin News spoke with Graham Jones, an internationally recognized internet psychologist and author, who pointed out that the scale of cyber attacks matters when considering shifts in culture. As global powers like the U.S., China, Russia, and South Korea experience large-scale cyber attacks, which governments then often report tracing back to foreign state-sponsored activity, the question emerges: Does society collectively change to adapt to the dangers of cyber attacks?

Jones explained: 

Human beings tend to think together in groups. There is a reason for that - it helps ensure that there is social cohesion. If everyone thinks and behaves differently, social groups do not work. So, as groups of people perceive or experience the threats from cyber attacks, that will tend to make the group change their thinking. In some social groups, they will perceive the threat as real and dangerous and will seek to behave in different ways to minimize the risks. Other groups of people will not perceive the threat as real, more theoretical. So their behavior will not be likely to change or adapt. So, if one country gets lots of attacks and many people are affected, the behavior of the people in that country will adapt. But in another country with few attacks, then society will not adapt. 

Meaning it will likely take more than a few suspected China-sponsored attacks on U.S. digital soil to get the collective consciousness moving. Jones noted that the further away from individuals the threat takes place, the less important it becomes to those individuals. “People rarely change behavior until a situation affects them personally,” Jones said. “So, cyber attacks are going to have to affect large numbers of people individually before any real impact is felt in terms of social behavior and cultural change.”

But this change could come sooner than one suspects. It’s important to take into consideration the growing dependency we have on software-based and internet-driven utilities. Smart grids, communicative devices — the internet of things — are trickling in to everyday life in such a way that the future of electrical and water systems, healthcare facilities, and cityscapes will largely be internet-dependent. While this shift will be more efficient than the current legacy systems in place, it also opens the doors to more cyber crime. A 2014 report from Security Intelligence cited a study that showed that 70% of IoT devices contain serious vulnerabilities, and emphasized that "there is undeniable evidence that our dependence on interconnected technology is defeating our ability to secure it.” A digital breach of a community’s electrical system could well trigger the collective fear Jones mentioned.

As the internet of things progresses, and both small and large scale attacks influence business strategy, we must consider when and how the individual user will be impacted, and more broadly, the possible shift in cultural awareness of and reaction to cyber security.

As Dr. Jean Camp pointed out at the 2014 Blouin Creative Leadership Summit, our approach to protecting ourselves from cyber attacks must be similar to the way we approach basic public health. Indeed, one wonders how many more large-scale cyber attacks must society experience before it collectively addresses digital vulnerabilities? With the advent of the internet of things and its spread into all sectors of public and private life, a cyber breach impactful enough to change the collective consciousness around cyber security will likely occur sooner rather than later.