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GCN : June 2015
GCN JUNE 2015 • GCN.COM 13 BOBELBERT BY PATRICK MARSHALL EMERGING TECH IN THE 1980s, when I was upforajobattheSanJose Mercury News, I was asked to take a personality test. Several of the questions had been taped over, but I could still read what was underneath. One of them was “Does the sight of dirty, ragged fingernails repulse you?” I wondered who had come up with the questions and what they were sup- posed to reveal about me. And, of course, I imagined what impact my answers would have on my job prospects. Today, researchers at Iowa State University are taking personality screening to a new level, and they have found that they can identify people who are likely to be cybersecurity risks by read- ing their neural activity. The study, directed by Professor Qing Hu, mea- sured the brain activity and response times of subjects presented with a series of security scenarios. Hu’s team found that people with higher self-control posed less security risk than people with lower self-control. The researchers screened 350 students using ques- tionnaires developed by criminologists more than 20 years ago to measure individuals’ levels of self- control. Then they selected the 20 students at each end of the spectrum and tested their neural responses to security scenarios. Researchers found two effects in the electroen- cephalograms (EEGs), said Robert West, a psychology professor who worked on the study. “One of them is that individuals with high self-control will have more neural activity when they are considering major viola- tions. That is attenuated in those with low self-control.” According to Hu, indi- viduals who display greater activity in the prefrontal cortex when faced with a se- curity scenario demonstrate higher levels of self-control and are less likely to present a threat. “Some people have developed an ability to use more executive control,” Hu said. “Others rely more on their primitive reflexive evo- lutionary capability to make decisions.” Those in the lat- ter group tend to be greater security risks, he added. “We’re not saying that people with low self-control are bad people,” Hu was quick to add. “People with low self-control simply may not be good candidates for a job that has access to sensitive, confidential data because they are easily in- duced or enticed by external factors.” At the same time, he ac- knowledged that individuals with high self-control can also be security risks. Hu said Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency analyst who released huge amounts of classified data, “appears by all indications to have very active high self-control. People like Snowden will defeat the system that we are talking about.” But Hu said he believes that Snowden is an excep- tion. There are plenty of people who have compro- mised security because of one small external incentive or stimulus, he said. “They don’t think about whether they might be caught [or] go to jail.” Hu and West acknowl- edge that more work is re- quired before the screening is ready for real-world use. For one thing, it’s impracti- cal for employers to hook up applicants to EEGs. “Once we establish the standard values using the sophisticated equipment, then a company can screen as part of your job interview using 20 or 30 questions,” Hu said. “That’s all we need.” As interesting as the research is, what companies might do with it is creepy. By some estimates, as many as a third of companies already use personality tests as a factor in making hiring decisions. If the new screen- ings are considered more ac- curate, it’s likely that more companies and, potentially, government agencies might adopt them. That prospect will understandably upset privacy advocates and job applicants alike. • Can brain scans spot insider threats? Iowa State University researchers measured brain activity to assess who was more likely to violate cybersecurity policies. 0615gcn_013.indd 13 6/1/15 9:44 AM