Date of Award

May 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Management Science

First Advisor

Fatemeh (Mariam) Zahedi

Second Advisor

Huimin Zhao

Committee Members

Sanjoy Ghose, Hemant Jain


Individuals' vulnerability, Online social network, Security Attacks


With increasing reliance on the Internet, the use of online social networks (OSNs) for communication has grown rapidly. OSN platforms are used to share information and communicate with friends and family. However, these platforms can pose serious security threats to users. In spite of the extent of such security threats and resulting damages, little is known about factors associated with individuals’ vulnerability to online security attacks. We address this gap in the following three essays.

Essay 1 draws on a synthesis of the epidemic theory in infectious disease epidemiology with the social capital theory to conceptualize factors that contribute to an individual’s role in security threat propagation in OSN. To test the model, we collected data and created a network of hacked individuals over three months from Twitter. The final hacked network consists of over 8000 individual users. Using this data set, we derived individual’s factors measuring threat propagation efficacy and threat vulnerability. The dependent variables were defined based on the concept of epidemic theory in disease propagation. The independent variables are measured based on the social capital theory. We use the regression method for data analysis. The results of this study uncover factors that have significant impact on threat propagation efficacy and threat vulnerability. We discuss the novel theoretical and managerial contributions of this work.

Essay 2 explores the role of individuals’ interests in their threat vulnerability in OSNs. In OSNs, individuals follow social pages and post contents that can easily reveal their topics of interest. Prior studies show high exposure of individuals to topics of interest can decrease individuals’ ability to evaluate the risks associated with their interests. This gives attackers a chance to target people based on what they are interested in. However, interest-based vulnerability is not just a risk factor for individuals themselves. Research has reported that similar interests lead to friendship and individuals share similar interests with their friends. This similarity can increase trust among friends and makes individuals more vulnerable to security threat coming from their friends’ behaviors. Despite the potential importance of interest in the propagation of online security attacks online, the literature on this topic is scarce. To address this gap, we capture individuals’ interests in OSN and identify the association between individuals’ interests and their vulnerability to online security threats. The theoretical foundation of this work is a synthesis of dual-system theory and the theory of homophily. Communities of interest in OSN were detected using a known algorithm. We test our model using the data set and social network of hacked individuals from Essay 1. We used this network to collect additional data about individuals’ interests in OSN. The results determine communities of interests which were associated with individuals’ online threat vulnerability. Moreover, our findings reveal that similarities of interest among individuals and their friends play a role in individuals’ threat vulnerability in OSN. We discuss the novel theoretical and empirical contributions of this work.

Essay 3 examines the role addiction to OSNs plays in individuals’ security perceptions and behaviors. Despite the prevalence of problematic use of OSNs and the possibility of addiction to these platforms, little is known about the functionalities of brain systems of users who suffer from OSN addiction and their online security perception and behaviors. In addressing these gaps, we have developed the Online addiction & security behaviors (OASB) theory by synthesizing dual-system theory and extended protection motivation theory (PMT). We collected data through an online survey. The results indicate that OSN addiction is rooted in the individual’s brain systems. For the OSN addicted, there is a strong cognitive-emotional preoccupation with using OSN. Our findings also reveal the positive and significant impact of OSN addiction on perceived susceptibility to and severity of online security threats. Moreover, our results show the negative association between OSN addiction and perceived self-efficacy. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of this work.

Available for download on Saturday, May 22, 2021