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PsyOps and network security

Schwartau archive

A significant component of cyberwar and cyberterrorism is called psychological operations, or PsyOps. Simply, PsyOps is the manipulation of the psyche of an adversary or target population with information, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. It involves perception management, or controlling what a group of people think and believe is the goal.

PsyOps and perception management by the media and our adversaries affect the way we think and react to events - and most notably, security-relevant events.

In the world before Sept. 11, a common PsyOps threat was the virus hoax: "Beware! Your organization will come to a grinding halt in 30 seconds unless you call Microsoft and get a fix! Do it now!" Newbies and folks at home panicked and spread the hoax through e-mail to equally clueless Netizens, while most corporations could make a clear distinction between legitimate virus events and hoaxes.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, PsyOps take on a whole new dimension. A single piece of paper with apparently threatening words on it forces an emergency evacuation of an airplane. We are seeing heightened worry and reaction to once-innocuous events.

PsyOps are also affecting network security and cybersurvival. The National Infrastructure Protection Center is issuing warnings that some future yet unspecified terrorist attack will be cyber in nature and likely target critical infrastructures. How's that for PsyOps? Our government telling us we had damned well better shore up our cyberdefenses - or else something bad might happen. Talk about heightened sensitivity.

When a server slows down, many people now first think, "Is this the next wave of terrorist attacks?" When rumors of massive distributed denial-of-service attacks spread, what is our first thought today? A troublesome teenager or terrorists?

The most obvious byproduct of cyberterrorism PsyOps and the great unknown of possible attacks in the post-Sept. 11 world is that organizations are extensively re-examining the relationship between the physical and virtual components of their networks. We hear from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft that unspecified threats are "credible."

CIOs say they are decentralizing data centers to provide greater survivability in case of a physical attack. PsyOps - the mere presence of a credible threat - has changed the way we have organized our networks for the last decade.

But are all these rapid rethinks and changes a good thing? Or are they knee-jerk reactions that will potentially cause more trouble and create new weaknesses we haven't thought of yet?

According to some critics, the Pentagon has overstated network attacks it has suffered in the past in order to maintain funding and "find an enemy and mission." Perception management, spin doctoring, propaganda - PsyOps at work.

So here we sit, post Sept. 11, more nervous than we were Labor Day, warned that more attacks are likely, and we bob and weave, and make the best guesses about how best to protect our infrastructures.

What makes a credible threat against an organization? A threatening e-mail? A funky package with no return address? A barrage of hate messages from anonymous sources? An ominous phone call? A sudden deluge of spam or network clogging streams?

But most importantly, how do we react? Do we treat these the same way we did in August, or do we all function at ThreatCon Delta, anticipating imminent network collapse? What is real and what is "noise"?

Perhaps the only good thing about the effect of PsyOps on our collective networked consciousness is that security awareness is at an all-time high. But, at the same time, a twitch of a threat also can send us into unwarranted paroxysmal actions.

No, I don't have all the answers, but I do know that we have to achieve a reasonable balance between where we were and where we are today. And, as has always been the case, be alert, be aware, but don't believe everything you hear.


Schwartau is president of Interpact, a security awareness consulting firm, and author of many books, including Cybershock and Computer and Internet Ethics. Reach him at

More Schwartau columns.

Error 404--Not Found

Error 404--Not Found

From RFC 2068 Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1:

10.4.5 404 Not Found

The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI. No indication is given of whether the condition is temporary or permanent.

If the server does not wish to make this information available to the client, the status code 403 (Forbidden) can be used instead. The 410 (Gone) status code SHOULD be used if the server knows, through some internally configurable mechanism, that an old resource is permanently unavailable and has no forwarding address.

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