Speaker Spotlight: with Dr. Danks on Humans in Cyber Operations, Espionage, and Conflict.

Interviewed by Victoria Fedorets on February 21, 2018

Listen to our interview here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/sedatviu/2018/02/21/march-1st-voices-from-the-field-speaker-spotlight-interview-dr-danks


A transcript of the talk is below.

VF ( Victoria Fedorets): Hello Dr. Danks. Thank you for joining us today. We are very excited to welcome you at VIU for your talk on March 1st and we appreciate you spending some of your time away from your busy schedule.

I am going to introduce you quickly and then we can go into the discussion.

JD (Joseph Danks): OK.

VF: Thank you. Joseph Danks is Research Professor Emeritus and formerly Technical Director for Strategic Intelligence Analysis at the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL). His research has focused on how people comprehend sentences and text, especially across languages, the cognitive processes involved in translation, and how elderly patients communicate their life-sustaining treatment preferences.  At CASL, he has investigated using a cultural lens and social media to forecast the plans and intentions of a country’s leadership and populace, and also how to conduct remote psychological assessment of cyber adversaries.  Dr. Danks received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught for many years at Kent State University, serving as Chair of Psychology and as Dean of Arts and Sciences.  He also has taught at Princeton, Stanford, the University of Warsaw, and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.  Dr. Danks has authored and edited several books, and published extensively in psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology.

So, tell us a little more about your current work and why the topic of your talk is important to you.

JD: CASL is a research center sponsored by the US Department of Defense and it focuses on language, culture, and cognition having to do with issues of national security. It covers a wide variety of topics; we have linguists, psycholinguistics, sociologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists at CASL, so it is multidisciplinary center. I became involved in this particular topic, in cyber adversaries and operations in the community. What struck me in cyber security is that it tended to focus on technical issues, i.e. how to create better firewalls, how to better detect intrusions automatically. There seems to be relatively little attention being paid to the humans in the loop, the humans on both ends of the network and other humans being affected as well. So, I decided to try to do some psychological analysis of the humans involved, particularly looking at human adversaries, to try to develop better means of cyber security defense.

VF: Thank you so much. It’s really intriguing and we are definitely looking forward to your talk, Dr. Danks, not only our students, but also our members of educational communities, agents, partners, and friends. What do you hope that attendees will get out of the talk?

JD: The main bottom line that they should get out of it is that, if we are going to have truly effective cyber security, cyber defense, we have to pay attention to humans in the loop. Otherwise, the humans are going to find ways around the technology and misuse it on their adversaries, or we’re going to use it to improve the security in the United States.

VF: How would you define cyber, for those who might be new to the terminology? What are the defining features of the psychological assessment of cyber opponents?

JD: Cyber is almost everything involving a computer. Unfortunately, the definition is getting larger and larger by the day as we see all the discussion about social media and so on. What I looked at in particular, to be a little more concrete, was to look at trying to do personality, social, and cognitive assessment of cyber adversaries, to see for example, what is motivating them, if they are motivated by power, by ideology, or by money; also, some characteristics such as, are they risk takers, how big of a risk are they going to take in terms of trying to gain an intrusion into another system. So, the variety of psychological characteristics that you could look for might be useful to design cyber defense.

VF: Are there any tangible, palpable misconceptions out there about the topic of your talk?

JD: I think, that a big misconception is, what I mentioned earlier, namely that in terms of cyber security, it is solely a technological issue, building automatic detection, building firewalls, etc. While technology is important, I think it’s important to look at the humans who are in the loop on this. One of the biggest risks for our own computer systems are human foibles, that is when you are getting phishing e-mails from many people, who will click on the link which can insert malware, give out their easily defined passwords, and so on.

VF: What resources might you suggest for someone who wants to know more about your topic? Or, how do you stay informed on the topic of your talk? What would you recommend?

JD: There are quite a few resources available. Actually, in the last spring semester, Spring 2017, I offered an undergraduate course on cyber psychology at the University of Maryland and I didn’t have any trouble finding materials for students. To be specific, this topic is based on the chapter that I published with my co-author in a book published by Oxford University Press. The title of my talk is the same as the chapter. The book is entitled “Binary Bullets: the Ethics of Cyberwarfare.” by Fritz Allhoff and Adam Henschke.

I would like to mention another article, that I came across recently, that was published [in January 2018] in Strategic Studies Quarterly, published by the US Air Force. The article is by Jerrard Prier called “Commanding the Trend: Social Media as Information Warfare.” He does a very good job summarizing the very current use of social media by the Islamic State and by Russia. This is quite an interesting article that should be accessible for everyone. It is available online. If you just search in your browser for “strategic studies quarterly”, it pops right up. You can download and there is an article of no charge.

VF: In general, are there any predominant principles that guide your own research or work philosophy? If so, what are they?

JD: Most of my research has very much involved multidisciplinary approaches. I rarely start with psychological theory and then try to test hypothesis. Rather, I look for a real world problem, something that needs to be solved, to help people live their lives better, and then I try to figure out how basic research in psychology can shine some light on possible solutions. Cyber operations are very critical both for the US Department of Defense but also in a public sphere as part of social media.

VF: What role might language and linguistics play in cyber security?

JD: It plays a very critical role when looking at foreign social media. For example, I have worked with social media in Arabic. I don’t know Arabic, but I had Arabic speakers on my team, and by looking at social media in the Middle East, we thought it was essential to look at it in the speakers’ native language. Otherwise, many nuances are missed. Just recently the disclosure of Mueller’s indictments involving social media, that the Russians were engaged in social media in the United States and much of their English was excellent and got to the nuances of American English. So, obviously they are paying attention to language. If we are going examine social media around the world, such as ISIS’ social media, we have to know the local language.

VF: What is your source of motivation?

JD: I read the newspaper. By reading what’s going on in the world, I feel like I can contribute to the solutions, how can I not be involved, be motivated, and stay interested these problems. Plus the fact, over the years the problems that I am curious to solve are just downright intriguing. I’m very much a problem solver. I’m not a theoretician, and so trying to solve this problems that have intrigued me over years.

VF: What are some current projects you are working on?

JD: The project that I’m working on currently involves counter-proliferation of nuclear weapons. A number of countries around the world that have a motivation perhaps, if you’re reading the newspaper, if you see what’s in the news, they have some motivation to develop nuclear weapons. For example, Saudi Arabia may develop a nuclear weapon in response to Iran; South Korea and Japan in response what is happening in the North Korea, etc. These are called “over the horizon” countries, because we don’t know whether they are going to start developing a nuclear weapon or not. So we have been doing some cultural analysis, not so much political, economic, or military analysis; we have been doing some cultural analysis involving, looking at motivations of the horizon countries, to see whether they might have tendencies to move in that particular direction.

VF: Is your research available online?

JD: Yes, it’s under the College Park, University of Maryland, CASL website.

VF: Thank you for your time again, Dr. Danks and we are looking forward to your talk here, March 1st. For more information on our upcoming Voices from the Field series, please visit the School of Education’s website at https://www.viu.edu/sed/. There, you can click on “community connections”, where you will find information about previous and upcoming speakers in our series.



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