What makes hackers tick?

To strengthen cybersecurity defenses, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories want to learn how hackers think and respond as they attack computer networks.

For the study sponsored by the Defense Department, ethical hackers will wear monitors that measure their biological responses as they attack computers in a network simulation, according to documents seen by The Register.

While hackers participate in a capture the flag exercise, their biological responses will be collected and analyzed to learn how they think and react during the game. That information will help researchers determine what hardware and software are the easiest and hardest for hackers to infiltrate. It also will show how they cope with the challenge, both physically and mentally.

"Our goal is to understand which configurations are the most secure on average, and why," the documents said. "Thus, we intend for multiple participants to face the same challenges in order to produce statistical samples."

The participants would wear a high-end Empatica E4 wristband, The Register reported. The monitor measures blood volume pulse, which can be used to determine heart rate, heart rate variability and other cardiovascular features. It also has an electrodermal activity sensor that measures increases in response to stress, engagement and excitement, according to the Empatica website.

DOD has worked with biomedical monitors in the past. In 2015, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Tech Warrior exercises tested the BioStampRC Wearable Sensing Platform, a flexible and wearable patch that monitors performance and body signatures from electrocardiogram to temperature and transmits the data via Bluetooth to a handheld platform.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA from West Chester University and an MA in English from the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at or @sjaymiller.

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