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What does cognitive psychology have to do with cybersecurity

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What does cognitive psychology have to do with cybersecurity

“Of course we’re thinking about it. Maybe it will be called cognitive cybersecurity and maybe someone will launch a mental firewall sooner or later. But beyond names and definitions, it is clear that safeguarding people online today is no longer a simple matter linked to viruses or scams “. Ondrej Vlcekat the head of Avast in Prague, one of the most important European companies specializing in computer security, tells the VivaTech in Parisan annual fair dedicated to innovation now in its sixth edition and always supported by the president Emmanuel Macron.

We meet him a few hours before from the conference of Thierry BretonEuropean Commissioner for the Internal Market, entitled not by chance The digital wild west. Because, beyond the inevitable robots, drones and 3D printers that pop up here and there in the stands, this year at Viva Tech there was often talk of safety. As well as insecurity, also increased by the Russian invasion against Ukraine. “The European Union is the largest democracy in the world where 445 million people live”, Breton pointed out from the main stage of the Parisian fair. “Democracy is not easy, supporting it is a constant effort, and now we have to organize our digital space which, as we know, is a wild west”.

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Leaving aside for a moment the enormous opportunities that the Internet offers and returning to the dangers, being the subject of propaganda or waves of disinformation poses a problem of what cybersecurity should be and what should remain outside it. Of course, just protecting your PC or smartphone from malware is not enough to stop threats, some of which aim at confusing cognitive abilities. And they are digital threats anyway. “Obviously we are talking about questions or problems to which there is no single solution or answer”, continues Vlcek. “I don’t think we should decide from above what is true and what is not, but probably in the future there will be much more effective tools than the current ones to instantly understand who, which network and when a certain information has been circulated” .

However, there is the doubt that people are not so interested in the origin and veracity of the information they read. Often they make an instrumental use of it, they serve to confirm their prejudices and to support or flaunt an identity. It is a mechanism that has not yet been fully studied, unlike that of the echo chambers, yet it is one of the most important pieces in the polarizing dynamics of social networks that has its roots in our attitudes outside the digital world.


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In the meantime, the count and continuous alarms related to cyber attacks continue, even if compared to 2020 levels they have dropped according to the latest annual report by Clusit, the trade association that brings together cybersecurity companies in Italy. “Every day, the Ministry of Defense alone receives about 150 thousand attacks by hackers trying to penetrate our systems”explained the Undersecretary of Defense Giorgio Mulè speaking at the Cyber-risk & SME conference. But then he also added: “Of these only 20 or 40 require dedicated intervention from our experts, which means that our system has solid walls where 99.9 percent of these attacks are repelled directly by firewalls.” It is true that not all medium and small Italian enterprises can count on equally effective systems, but the perception of the danger is spreading. Or rather: the certainty that in all that is digital there are also risks in addition to the benefits.

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This is well known to the National Cybersecurity Agency (Acn), established by the Government in August 2021 and led by Roberto Baldoni. To build solid protections around the country’s vital structures, it can count on the 623 million euros already foreseen by the NRP. They will be used to implement the 82 planned measures.


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Other forms of attacks such as external propaganda, being of a different nature, do not meet any limits for now despite being a form of attack. One of the possible solutions suggested to VivaTech by several parties is the idea of ​​certifying the identity of those who access online as it happens in the physical world. “Everything that is allowed outside the Web should also be allowed inside it, and at the same time everything that the law prohibits in the physical world must be in the digital world,” Breton stressed. “It is not a simple operation, but it must be done”.

An idea that has always been opposed by some of the first pioneers of the Web, convinced, for example, that anonymity protects people, especially in totalitarian and free-killing regimes, Russia and China in the lead. On the other hand, it is noted how those same regimes have applied censorship on the Web and in general the repression of dissent without major problems despite anonymity. In short, it would be a fake problem, especially in the West where the impossibility of knowing who is behind a certain content has contributed to amplifying a climate of hatred and divisions that has ended up infecting traditional media as well.

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“These are complex issues”, concludes Ondrej Vlcek, “which we are only now starting to deal with”. Certainly in the future of companies like yours there will be room not only for cybersecurity expert computer scientists, but also for sociologists, neurologists, data analysts and social networks, because they will inevitably have to broaden their range of action and offer something that goes beyond the classic antivirus.

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