Philip Hung Cao

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Cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken: New Threats Demand New Solutions

5 min read

Mary AikenEditor’s note: Dr. Mary Aiken, a cyberpsychologist, expert in cyber behavioral analysis and author, will deliver the closing keynote address at CSX North America 2017, to take place 2-4 October in Washington, D.C., USA; and CSX Europe 2017, to take place 30 October-1 November in London. Aiken recently visited with ISACA Now about several of her core areas of interest, including digital ethics and how parents can combat some of the cyber threats that could harm their children. The following is an edited transcript:

ISACA Now: What intrigued you about pursuing cyber behavioral analysis?
As a cyberpsychologist, I maintain that human behaviour can fundamentally change in cyberspace. Powerful drivers such as (perceived) anonymity, online disinhibition and psychological immersion, along with minimization of authority online, dictate that people can act very differently in cyber contexts. Therefore, there is a need for new behavioral scientific approaches and analysis in terms of understanding human, and specifically criminal behavior mediated by technology.

ISACA Now: What should organizations be especially mindful about from a digital ethics standpoint?
In 2016, NATO declared that cyberspace was a ‘domain of operations.’ People like me have been talking about cyberspace for over a decade, but this was a paradigm shift in terms of an official acknowledgement that ‘cyber’ is actually a place, an environment. This recognition gives us a great opportunity to draw on the learnings of the environmental movement. What happens in cyberspace impacts the so-called real world, and vice versa. We should therefore be very protective of this new cyber environment.

The “precautionary principle” has been used to great effect in the environmental movement, placing the onus on companies to prove that their products are doing no harm. From an ethical perspective, if we apply the precautionary principle to cyberspace, then the onus will be on organizations to prove that their digital products do no harm. We are all familiar with the benefits of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). There is a now an exciting opportunity for organizations to practice Cyber CSR.

ISACA Now: Which aspects of your research on virtual behavioral profiling tend to surprise people the most?
In terms of behavioral profiling, I have been involved in a dozen different research silos – everything from cyberchondria to organized cybercrime – and the one thing that I have observed is that whenever technology interfaces with a base human disposition, the result tends to be amplified and accelerated. I called this ‘the Cyber Effect,’ and wrote a book about it. A lot of people were surprised and fascinated by this insight; I believe it could be the E = mc2   of this century. If we could figure out and factor this escalation, then we could also look at technological solutions to de-escalate.

ISACA Now: What do you see as the most positive potentials of technology across the cyber environment today?
I believe that AI offers incredible potential across the cyber environment. Many of the problems that we experience in cyber contexts are in fact ‘big data’ type problems – for example cyberbullying. If we could develop machine intelligence solutions to technology-facilitated problem behaviors, then I firmly believe we could help to create a better cyber society for all, and most importantly for those who are vulnerable, such as children.

ISACA Now: Cyberchondria is probably a new concept for a lot of people. How would you characterize that term, and how prevalent is it?
Searching about health and illness are among the most popular search topics. There is lots of constructive and helpful information available online, from quality medical websites, such as the Mayo Clinic. However, it is difficult from an untrained human perspective to be objective in terms of the interpretation of bodily symptoms, and subsequent translation into medical search. There is a word for what can go wrong. Cyberchondria is a form of hypochondria manifested online.

It is described as anxiety induced as a result of escalation to review morbid or serious content while engaging in health-related search. What does that mean? It means that you have a headache (that could be anything from a hangover to a migraine), and you start clicking to read about brain tumors, and experience anxiety as a result. In other words, you may be perfectly well in physical terms, but may end up with a nasty dose of health anxiety.

ISACA Now: How concerned should parents be about cyberbullying, and what should they be doing to help their kids navigate the digital world?
Cyberbullying is a serious issue for parents, and I am very concerned about what society should be doing to tackle it. Let’s think about it like this. Real-world bullying is a problem – why? With a harsh word or punch on the playground, there is little or no evidence. However, cyberbullying is nothing but evidence; in fact, you cannot cyber-bully without leaving a significant digital trail. So, how did we ever get to a point where cyberbullying was a bigger problem that real-world bullying? There are solutions.

We could develop AI technologies for telecommunications and social media platforms that (with parental consent) could monitor digital traffic to children. The point at which the behavior escalates in terms of bullying, the AI could trigger a digital outreach to the child to “go and get help,” and a digital outreach to the parent to “go talk to your child.” Parents should not be the last to know that their child is being cyber-bullied.

ISACA Now: If you had one key inspirational message for the ISACA business technology professional community today, what would that be?
I am absolutely pro-technology. I could not do my job as a cyberpsychologist without spending most of my time online.  I firmly believe that in time we will develop a whole range of technological solutions to technology-facilitated problem behaviors. It is important to remember that technology is not good or bad; it is either used well or poorly by humans.


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