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Research Reveals which Online Habits Increase Exposure to Viruses

— January 8, 2019

Low self-control, including short-sightedness, negligence, physical versus verbal behavior, and an inability to delay gratification can cause computer viruses, research suggests.

New research from Michigan State University suggests there are certain personality traits of individuals who use the internet that cause them to be put at higher risk for Trojans, viruses and malware attacks.  Impulse online shopping, downloading music and compulsive email are all such traits that can lead to viruses.

“People who show signs of low self-control are the ones we found more susceptible to malware attacks,” said Thomas Holt, professor of criminal justice and 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.”

Low self-control, Holt explained, could include short-sightedness, negligence, physical versus verbal behavior, and an inability to delay gratification.

“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 victimization; people with this trait put themselves in situations where they are near others who are motivated to break the law.”

Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash

The research, published in Social Science Computer Review, took a look at the level of self-control of 6,000 survey participants, as well as their computers’ behavior.  Holt and his team asked participants a series of questions about how they might react in certain situations.  They also asked whether their computer was experiencing issues including slower processing, crashing, unexpected pop-ups, and the homepage changing on their web browser, all indicative of potential viruses.

“The internet has omnipresent risks,” Holt said. “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.”

Cybercriminals know what sites, files or methods to attack and target those that are frequented by individuals with low self-control.  Understanding the psychological side of self-control is key to combating cybercrime, Holt said.

Computer scientists, Holt said, look for new software solutions to block infections.  This is important, but, he argues, it is also crucial to address the psychological side of messaging to those with low self-control and impulsive behaviors.

“There are human aspects of cybercrime that we don’t touch because we focus on the technical side to fix it,” he said. “But if we can understand the human side, we might find solutions that are more effective for policy and intervention.”

Holt suggests there are three primary motives for criminals to hack computers.  “First, some criminal hacking occurs due to the challenge of breaking into a system, curiosity, a need to learn or understand a system, feelings of addiction, feelings of power,” he writes.  “A second motive is related to peer associations and personal ego development… Third, many modern criminal hacks are driven by the desire for monetary gain.”  Holt hopes their research will help to effectively fight against these crimes.

“If we can identify risk factors, we can work in tandem with technical fields to develop strategies that then reduce the risk factors for infection,” Holt said. “It’s a pernicious issue we’re facing, so if we can attack from both fronts, we can pinpoint the risk factors and technical strategies to find solutions that improve protection for everyone.”


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