Cognitive hacking warnings

More Internet information means more disinformation,warns a Dartmouth engineering professor

Why is the stock market fluctuating wildly these days? Is it poor earnings reports? Is it questionable accounting practices or CEO inefficiency? Or do investors trade frantically after they’ve read something on the Internet? If an investor reads a seemingly authoritative report about a company’s performance, he or she might be influenced to buy or sell stock.

Sometimes what seems to be a respected source of reliable information is actually a clever scheme to manipulate people, suggests Dartmouth Thayer School of Engineering Professor George Cybenko. This kind of “cognitive hacking” on the Internet could be contributing to the stock market’s uncertainty, and it could shape our views in ways we don’t even realize.

In an article in the August issue of Computer magazine, the publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, Cybenko recounts some elaborate cyber schemes intended to alter the user’s perceptions. Writing with Paul Thompson, a senior research engineer at Dartmouth’s Institute for Security Technology Studies, and Annarita Giani, a graduate student, the article describes different kinds of cognitive hacking and offers suggestions for combating this cunning crime.

“This really is a problem area straddling technology and society,” says Cybenko. “By manipulating information, hackers can alter our perceptions of reality in subtle ways – without launching a virus or a network worm.”

In one case during the summer of 2000, a cognitive hacker wrote a press release about a company stating that the company was revising its earnings statement to reflect a loss rather than a gain. Then he distributed the release, which also stated that the company’s CEO had resigned, via a credible business news service, which was subsequently picked up by other news services. Within hours the stock price had plummeted, and the hacker had recouped a recent loss in a stock short sale (this is where stock prices must fall for the seller to profit). Although he was caught, fined and faces prison time, this scenario demonstrates the vulnerability of some networked systems.

“The damage had little to do with penetrating the network infrastructure or technology. It had to do with manipulating perception and waiting for altered reality to produce actions that would complete the attack,” the article states.

Cybenko, Giani and Thompson describe various shades of cognitive hacking, some with significant consequences, while others are simply a nuisance. The outcome, however, is usually unpredictable. It’s this unknown quality that makes thwarting cognitive hackers a challenge.

“People can help by trying to authenticate their information before acting on it,” says Cybenko. “Of course, if the source is a news organization, the content provider has a responsibility to provide accurate, balanced information, but market pressures to be first with a story are taking their toll.” Other avenues for curbing cognitive hacking involve network surveillance and constant monitoring, but the article points out that many of these tools and technologies still need to be developed.

“Until then, users must remain constantly alert,” the article concludes

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