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cognitive hacking

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Cognitive hacking is a cyberattack that seeks to manipulate the perception of people by exploiting their psychological vulnerabilities. The purpose of the attack is changes in behavior, usually resulting from exposure to misinformation. As such, cognitive hacking is a form of social engineering although it may target a broad audience rather than specific individuals. 

Cognitive hacking may be overt or covert, can take various forms and may be launched through a variety of attack vectors. The attack is usually information-based and non-technical, however. In most cases, cognitive hacking does not involve corruption of hardware or software or even unauthorized access to systems or data.  

The most common tool used in a cognitive hack is weaponized information: messages or content that is designed to affect the user's perceptions and beliefs in a way that will harm a target. The active "attack" is carried out by the people affected by those messages. For example, disinformation about a political candidate might go viral and convince large numbers of people to vote for someone else.  

On an individual level, the best way to resist the influence cognitive hacking is maintaining a skeptical attitude and cultivating critical thinking. People should also be responsible in terms of social media. Before reacting to or sharing any doubtful or surprising information, it's always wise to fact check the content.  

In the enterprise, cognitive hacks may take the form of weaponized information that enters through automated channels. On a business network, cognitive hacking can impact security without ever being seen by a human. To mitigate that risk, security experts are exploring the potential of cognitive security technologies to automatically detect and deal with cognitive hacks. 

This was last updated in August 2017

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