Ruhr-Uni-Bochum
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The psychology behind hacking: New research group examines the "digital society"

Technology itself and its users are often blamed for the sense of uncertainty we experience in the digital world. Now researchers are taking a closer look at the other side of the equation...

Copyright: Indeed Photography, Bierwald

Technology itself and its users are often blamed for the sense of uncertainty we experience in the digital world. Now researchers are taking a closer look at the other side of the equation.

A new group of early career researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) is hoping insights from the field of psychology can make digital systems more secure. Group members are putting cyber-attackers’ psychological profiles under the microscope for the first time. The group will begin its work under the direction of Dr Malte Elson on 1 January 2018. The federal state government of North Rhine-Westphalia has provided over €800,000 over five years from a fund dedicated to “digital society” initiatives.

Security in digital technologies to protect democracy

Security strengthens our democracy. We use technologies and systems daily that store incredibly sensitive user data. Compromised systems pose a threat to the general population, including their democratically elected governments. Elections could, for example, be manipulated by cyber-attackers. At the same time, governments could spy on their citizens or democratic institutions, such as political parties. “By improving the security of digital technologies, we work to protect principles of freedom and democratic values in society,” explains Malte Elson, from the Chair for Educational Psychology.

Psychological factors of attacks

Expanding horizons: Research on “usable security” aims to improve the usability of security mechanisms and encourage people to choose more secure passwords. At the same time, a system’s security may also be compromised without a user doing anything, such as through hardware manipulation. Our understanding of the psychological factors related to attacks on insecure systems, for example, or the design of more secure hardware is currently limited. The early career researchers group draws from research in psychology related to usable security, applying it to the analysis of the behaviour of cyber-attackers on hardware chips. “We aim to develop targeted measures based on psychological models of users and cyber-attackers to make future attacks more difficult,” says Malte Elson.

The Horst Görtz Insitute with SecHuman

IT security at the RUB: The new group fits in perfectly at the RUB. The Horst Görtz Institute for IT Security (HGI), with 22 professors and around 200 researchers representing electrical engineering, information technology, mathematics, business and economics, law, and the humanities and social sciences, is one of the leading institutions in the field in Europe. An associated researcher with the SecHuman graduate school, Malte Elson enjoys close ties with the HGI. SecHuman aims to fundamentally improve digital security in our society. Members take an integrated approach to a wide array of research initiatives in IT security, which includes a sustained focus on practical relevance of research findings and their practical application.

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