Washington, Jan 27 (PTI) Cyberterrorism is outpacing physical attacks among far-left groups — such as animal rights and environmental activists — who are passionate about their cause but do not want directly to harm humans, a study has found.

According to researchers from Michigan State University in the US cyberattacks happen more often and can cause greater destruction than physical terrorist attacks.

“Little work has been done around the use of the internet as an attack space,” said Thomas Holt, professor of criminal justice at Michigan State.

“If we don’t get a handle understanding them now, we won’t fully understand the scope of the threats today and how to prevent larger mobilisation efforts in the future,” said Holt.

The findings, published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, underscore that ideological cyberterrorist attacks are outpacing physical attacks among far-left groups.

To understand these attacks, researchers analysed the scope, growth and impact of ideological cyberterrorist incidents from far-left groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front and the hacker conglomerate group Anonymous.

These groups don’t necessarily want to physically harm humans, Holt said.

Rather, they are motivated by animal and environmental activism and feel passionate about attacking companies, organisations and government entities that go against their beliefs.

Unfortunately, everyday consumers get caught in attack aftershocks from data breaches and information loss, researchers said.

“These kinds of ideologically motivated attacks are devised to have an emotional and economic impact on groups that go against their beliefs,” Holt said.

“If you visit a company’s website expecting to see one thing and this group has instead hacked the website and posted customers’ personal information, that’s a huge issue for both the company and the consumers,” he added.

Organisations in Holt’s research that have fallen victim to these attacks range from Dow Chemical to the US government, and in industries ranging from meat production to fashion.

The high-profile nature of the internet — on which these ideological groups can manipulate traffic — is the ideal platform to attack.

“If you’re a consumer and you bought a product from one of the victim companies, these attackers would target your data as being associated with something that goes against their ideological beliefs,” Holt said.

“In another case, the group attacked the federal government by releasing passwords for government agencies,” he said.

Holt’s research examined physical and cyber terror attacks committed by these far-left groups between 2000 and 2015 in the US, UK and Canada.

“The number of physical attacks by these groups was steady for the first few years of our study and then declined over time,” Holt said.

“At the time, cyberterrorist incidents began increasing and peaked at nine attacks in 2015,” he said.

“While we can’t speculate as to why physical attacks have declined, we believe that the cyber component increased because these attacks generate an economic and emotional impact, draw attention to their cause from the public and may be less likely to lead to arrest,” he added.

Whether acting as a mobilised organization or an individual, ideological cyberterrorists are as dangerous as the violent extremists seen across the globe, researchers said.

In fact, only one of the incidents observed resulted in an arrest, meaning the actors are still at-large. The mask of the internet makes them harder to catch and easier for them to hide, Holt said.

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.