Distorted risk perception: Why we fear terrorism, but don’t worry about our cyber security.

By Ivan Seifert.

What makes you feel safe? Perhaps locking your apartment door at night. Perhaps not walking alone through dark alleys. Perhaps being extra careful in crowded places. Feeling safe is a state of mind which is influenced by a variety of factors. Depending on where you live, you instinctively try to adapt your behaviour to your local environment in order to feel safe and to feel in control of what happens to you.

Therefore, we lock our apartment doors because we want to make it harder for the thief to break in. We avoid walking through dark alleys because we don’t want to risk it to be mugged. We are being extra careful in crowded places because we fear to witness a terrorist attack.


In other words, we instinctively take precautions to physical threats because they impact our feeling of safety. Take terrorism, for example. In the public discourse, the threat of terrorism is on top of everyone’s agenda. But while the threat of terrorism is real, the odds for the average citizen of witnessing a terrorist attack is actually insignificant. One psychologist actually calculated the statistical probability of dying in a terrorist attack. He stated that “odds of dying in a terrorist bombing at a shopping mall are approximately 1.5 million to 1, even if it is assumed that terrorists totally destroy one mall per week”.

The point is, we worry much about things which are statistically very unlikely to happen to us, while we naively neglect much higher risks that can have a big negative impact on our physical well-being and feeling of safety. In the UK, one of the top five reasons for premature deaths are cardiovascular diseases. While it is known that exercise can decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases by 30%, many people still struggle to incorporate sports into their weekly schedule.

Basic Cyber Security

The same principle is true when it comes to implementing cyber security measures. Cyber security seems like a daunting topic better left to the IT guys at work. But the truth is, everyone who uses the internet should have a basic understanding of how to navigate the cyberspace safely.

Just think about it: imagine if someone hacked you and used all of the available information against you. You may think ‘aah I’m not that important, why would anyone hack me’? Think again. There are a variety of reasons for hacking someone. Most commonly, people are getting hacked for either political reasons or for monetary reasons. While it’s true that most people probably don’t have to worry about being hacked for political reasons, everyone can be hacked for monetary reasons. The Radiolab episode ‘Darkcode’ tells the story of Alina and Inna Simone who were coerced to pay ransom to hackers. The hackers’ method was simple: they encrypted Alina and Inna’s entire hard drive and threatened to delete all their files in case they didn’t pay.

Alina and Inna’s story nicely illustrates that it is time for average people to start taking cyber threats seriously. As digitalisation progresses, our digital files and digital identity become much more important and equally more vulnerable to cyber threats.

But just like taking safety measures in real life, such as locking the door, avoiding dark alleys and being careful in crowded places, there are many simple measures that can significantly decrease our vulnerability to cyber attacks.

Get a Decent Password

To avoid becoming a victim like Alina and Inna, get a decent password and keep a backup of your files. Check out this TED blog post for more simple steps to increase your cyber security. In a nutshell, having a decent password is like having a good lock to your apartment. Similarly, a backup is like having a second apartment where you can go in case your first apartment has been destroyed. While most people can’t afford a second apartment, everyone can afford to backup their files.


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