The Cognitive Science Behind Cybersecurity

Guest Editorial by Margaret Cunningham, Principal Research Scientist, Forcepoint

Artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, and machine learning are among the most discussed technologies in the cybersecurity realm, but what do these solutions really mean to security professionals?

Are they just buzzwords, or can they truly help commercial and public sector organizations achieve stronger and more intelligent security postures?

Though these solutions hold great promise, the technology itself is only part of that answer.

The real key to good cybersecurity lies in applying cognitive science—including human beings’ ability to consider, reason, and learn—to cybersecurity practices.

Just like humans require multiple lines of input—languages, relationships, experiences, and more—to learn, effective cybersecurity cannot be done in isolation.

Done correctly, cybersecurity requires multiple sources and types of information to build an understanding of technology systems and vulnerabilities.

When challenged with a task of protecting and understanding a large and increasingly distributed system, a single indicator from a single discipline is inadequate.

But cybersecurity is just as much about people as it is about machines.

After all, people are often the softest targets, and can be highly susceptible to phishing and social engineering attacks and human error.

Furthermore, machines cannot be relied upon to make decisions on their own—at least not yet.

Raffael Marty, vice president of corporate strategy at Forcepoint, told attendees at Blackhat USA 2018 that people are becoming too reliant on machines to make decisions based on algorithms that no one understands.

Likewise, our 2019 cybersecurity predictions report maintains that there is no real AI in cybersecurity, and that humans are, will, and should remain a key part of the cybersecurity process for the foreseeable future.

(Hear directly from Raffael Marty, Vice President of Research and Intelligence at Forcepoint, discussing the Winter of AI in the 2019 Forcepoint Cybersecurity Predictions Report. Courtesy of Forcepoint and YouTube.)

To that extent, it’s helpful to look at ways in which six of the most basic tenets of cognitive science and human nature impact cybersecurity.


Cybersecurity’s emerging focus on behavioral analytics and biometrics depends on psychology, which is heavily rooted in measuring and making sense of human behavior.

Through psychology, we can better understand why someone might click on a suspicious link, open up a questionable email, or simply be tricked into divulging sensitive or personal information.

Knowing why someone does those things can help us prevent them from happening.

Understanding human psychology is also important for forensic investigations, constructing insider threat profiles, and establishing when to generate alerts to help with user education.

(Learn More from Nico Fischbach, Global Chief Technology Officer at Forcepoint, speaking to ‘A Counterfeit Reflection’ in the 2019 Forcepoint Cybersecurity Predictions Report. Courtesy of Forcepoint and YouTube.)


Philosophy is a critical exploration of reality and knowledge that can guide human belief systems about existence, learning, social systems, and ethics.

How we perceive the world—what we believe is real and meaningful—profoundly impacts our thought processes, ability to learn, and behaviors.

Understanding threats, use of data and surveillance, and even the existence and locations of adversaries are all philosophical problems that can be applied to cybersecurity.


Cognitive linguistics addresses topics associated with how language shapes thought and understanding.

This practice can be critical in discerning cybersecurity threats, as security often depends on understanding behavioral context through language.

For example, classification of documents and understanding where private data exists on a network can be supported through text mining and analytics. Also, user generated text can be used to identify risk factors or regulatory violations.


In cognitive science, anthropology helps us understand how humans build shared knowledge, engage in interpreting their environments, and how they relate to and act with the world.

A good example is how people are influenced by social media.

As recent news events suggest, opinions, behaviors, and feelings can be easily shaped and swayed.

Security professionals who apply cultural and cognitive anthropology in practice can better understand the behaviors and potential impacts of trolls and bots.


Cognitive neuroscience examines the biology of thinking and cognition. It provides a deep understanding of neurons, neural circuits, and the parts of the brain that allow us to perform mental processes.

Neuroscience has profoundly impacted information processing, network design, computational modeling, and sensor development, all of which have direct ties to cybersecurity.

Neuroscience continues to inspire innovations in building tools to improve knowledge representation and reasoning in technology.


Finally, we return to AI, which is a computer simulation of human intelligence.

Its goal is to create increasingly autonomous learning and reasoning through a range of strategies, including speech recognition, natural language processing, and machine vision.

And while there’s great promise for AI in cybersecurity, cybersecurity professionals continue to grapple with how, when, and whether it’s safe to use AI.

Raffael Marty, chief research and intelligence officer at Forcepoint
Raffael Marty, chief research and intelligence officer at Forcepoint

As Marty wrote, there are limitations to AI, and there may be some cases where AI should never be applied at all.

At the end of the day, it’s no coincidence that scientists have applied key aspects of the human condition to trying to make machines smarter.

All of these things have contributed to human thought and learning for thousands of years.

It makes sense to apply them to our efforts to make a more intelligent machine that can be used to fortify organizations’ security postures.

While that effort may not take thousands of years, we’re not quite there yet.

Yes, technology has become significantly smarter, and can play an invaluable role in helping us make better cybersecurity decisions.

But people are still the ones that have to make those decisions.

Eventually, machines might catch up, but as researchers at Accenture recently found, the most effective combination remains machines and people working together.

For now, the human factor still very much matters.

About the Author

Margaret Cunningham
Margaret Cunningham

Dr. Margaret Cunningham is a principal research scientist for human behavior in Forcepoint’s Innovation Lab.

Her current passion is identifying critical interactions between humans and technology through a socio-technical systems lens, with a goal of establishing a better human-centric model for improving cybsersecurity.

Forcepoint Takes Home the Gold in 2018 ‘ASTORS’ Homeland Security Awards Program


2018 ASTORS Gold

  • Best IT Data Mgmt Solution

  • Dynamic Data Protection



The Annual ‘ASTORS’ Awards Program is specifically designed to honor distinguished government and vendor solutions that deliver enhanced value, benefit and intelligence to end users in a variety of government, homeland security and public safety vertical markets.

William "Bill" Bratton, former police commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD), the Boston Police Department (BPD) and former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), will speak at the 2019 'ASTORS' Homeland Security Awards Luncheon at ISC East 2019, on Wednesday, November 20th, at the Jacob Javits Convention Center (Courtesy of Teneo Risk)
Bill Bratton, former police commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD), the Boston Police Department (BPD) and former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), will speak at the 2019 ‘ASTORS’ Homeland Security Awards Luncheon at ISC East 2019, on Wednesday, November 20th, at the Jacob Javits Convention Center (Courtesy of Teneo Risk)

The 2018 ‘ASTORS’ Awards Program drew an overwhelming response from industry leaders with a record high number of corporate and government nominations received, as well as record breaking ‘ASTORS’ Presentation Luncheon Attendees, with top firms trying to register for the exclusive high – end luncheon and networking opportunity – right up to the event kickoff on Wednesday afternoon, at the ISC East registration!

Over 130 distinguished guests representing National, State and Local Governments, and Industry Leading Corporate Firms, gathered from across North America, Europe and the Middle East to be honored among their peers in their respective fields which included:

  • The Department of Homeland Security
  • The Federal Protective Service (FPS)
  • Argonne National Laboratory
  • The Department of Homeland Security
  • The Department of Justice
  • The Security Exchange Commission Office of Personnel Management
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • Viasat, Hanwha Techwin, Lenel, Konica Minolta Business Solutions, Verint, Canon U.S.A., BriefCam, Pivot3, Milestone Systems, Allied Universal, Ameristar Perimeter Security and More!

The Annual ‘ASTORS’ Awards is the preeminent U.S. Homeland Security Awards Program highlighting the most cutting-edge and forward-thinking security solutions coming onto the market today, to ensure our readers have the information they need to stay ahead of the competition, and keep our Nation safe – one facility, street, and city at a time.

The 2018 ‘ASTORS’ Homeland Security Awards Program was Proudly Sponsored by ATI SystemsAttivo NetworksAutomatic SystemsDesktop Alertand Royal Holdings Technologies.

Early Bird Nominations are now being accepted for the 2019 ‘ASTORS’ Homeland SecurityAwards at


Comprehensive List of Categories Include:

Access Control/ Identification Personal/Protective Equipment Law Enforcement Counter Terrorism
Perimeter Barrier/ Deterrent System Interagency Interdiction Operation Cloud Computing/Storage Solution
Facial/IRIS Recognition Body Worn Video Product Cyber Security
Video Surveillance/VMS Mobile Technology Anti-Malware
Audio Analytics Disaster Preparedness ID Management
Thermal/Infrared Camera Mass Notification System Fire & Safety
Metal/Weapon Detection Rescue Operations Critical Infrastructure
License Plate Recognition Detection Products And Many Others!

Don’t see a Direct Hit for your Product, Agency or Organization?

Submit your category recommendation for consideration to Michael Madsen, AST Publisher at:

2018 Champions Edition

See the 2018 ‘ASTORS’ Champions Edition – ‘Best Products of 2018 ‘ Year in Review’ for in-depth coverage of the outstanding products and services of firms receiving American Security Today’s 2018‘ASTORS’ Homeland Security Awards.’

Enter Early to Maximize Media Coverage of your Products and Services at Kickoff, and Get the Recognition Your Organization Deserves!

And be sure to Register Early for the 2019 ‘ASTORS’ Awards Presentation Luncheon at ISC East 2019 to ensure your place at this limited- space event!

2018 'ASTORS' Homeland Security Awards Presentation Luncheon
2018 ‘ASTORS’ Homeland Security Awards Presentation Luncheon

Why the 2019 ‘ASTORS’ Homeland Security Awards Program?

American Security Today’s comprehensive Annual Homeland Security Awards Program is organized to recognize the most distinguished vendors of physical, IT, port security, law enforcement, and first responders, in acknowledgment of their outstanding efforts to ‘Keep our Nation Secure, One City at a Time.’

Why American Security Today?

American Security Today is uniquely focused on the broader Homeland Security & Public Safety marketplace with over 70,000 readers at the Federal, State and local levels of government as well as firms allied to government.

The old traditional security marketplace has been covered by a host of security publications that have changed little over many years.

American Security Today brings forward a fresh compelling look and read with our customized digital publications that provides our readers with solutions to their challenges.

Our Editorial staff provides a full plate of topics for our AST monthly digital editions, AST Website and AST Daily News Alerts.

The editorial calendar and AST’s high drawing website features 23 different Technology and Marketing Sectors such as Access Control, Perimeter Protection, Video Surveillance/Analytics, Airport Security, Border Security, CBRNE Detection, Border Security, Ports, Cybersecurity, Networking Security, Encryption, Law Enforcement, First Responders, Campus Security, Security Services, Corporate Facilities and Emergency Response among others.

These sectors are part of the new integration, where these major applications communicate with one another in a variety of solutions to protect our cities and critical infrastructure.

AST has Expanded readership into vital Critical Infrastructure audiences such as Protection of Nuclear Facilities, Water Plants & Dams, Bridges & Tunnels, and other Potential targets of terrorism.

Other areas of concern include Transportation Hubs, Public Assemblies, Government Facilities, Sporting & Concert Stadiums, our Nation’s Schools & Universities, and Commercial Business Destinations – enticing targets for extremist or lone wolf attacks due to the large number of persons and resources clustered together.

Learn More…

See Forcepoint’s Seven Cybersecurity Predictions for 2019 (Multi-Video)