Internet’s invisibility cloak foments crime, pioneering cyber-shrink says

Irish cyber-psychologist Mary Aiken, who inspired TV’s ‘CSI: Cyber,’ says we must measure kids’ tech prowess and identify those at risk of becoming teen hackers

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Professor Mary Aiken says anonymity online can be good, but also warns of a "tsunami of criminality" coming soon on the internet. (YouTube screenshot)
Professor Mary Aiken says anonymity online can be good, but also warns of a "tsunami of criminality" coming soon on the internet. (YouTube screenshot)

Harry Potter enthusiasts know all about the invisibility cloak he inherited from his father: it kept him hidden and safe while he undertook his various adventures fighting He Who Shall Not Be Named, the vicious Voldemort.

Now, says pioneering Irish cyber-psychologist Professor Mary Aiken, the internet grants all of us the power of invisibility, in the form of online anonymity.

“This anonymity comes with great responsibility,” Aiken said, invoking another fictional hero. The huge question, she said last week in an interview with The Times of Israel on the sidelines of a cyber conference in Tel Aviv, is: “As humans, are we capable of handling that responsibility?”

The answer, at least for the moment, appears to be no. The growing number of cyber criminals and hackers busy wreaking havoc around the globe, from online bullying to defacing websites to trafficking on the dark web and shutting down power plants, is evidence of a world that is “moving toward total disorder” in cyberspace, Aiken said. And law enforcement officials are warning about a “tsunami of criminality coming at us down the line, online,” she cautioned.

Dr Mary Aiken (Courtesy)
Mary Aiken (Courtesy)

“In society we are coming to a point where we have to fundamentally question the role of anonymity in the cyber context,” she said.

Anonymity can be good. It allows, for example, people in a repressed regime to have a voice. “But in terms of the greater good, does it really weigh up against all the negative aspects that can come with anonymity online?” she asks.

A global wave of cyberattacks that began in Russia and Ukraine on Tuesday last week wreaked havoc on government and corporate computer systems as it spread around the world. Britain’s parliament shut down external access to email accounts on June 24 following a cyberattack. Malicious software dubbed Crash Override or Industroyer was reportedly responsible for a 2016 power outage in Ukraine, while in May a worldwide extortionate ransomware attack, WannaCry, affected 10,000 organizations and 200,000 computers in over 150 countries.

All of these attacks highlight how vulnerable companies and nations are to the growing number of cyberthreats globally, and experts are warning that protections at hand are not comprehensive enough and that the world is losing the war against cyber criminals.

Aiken and her work in cyber-psychology, which is the study of the impact of emerging technologies on human behavior, inspired the American CBS TV series “CSI: Cyber,” starring Patricia Arquette as Avery Ryan, the head of the FBI’s cyber crime division, who works to solve internet-related murders, cyber theft, and sexual offenses.
Aiken herself is a whirlwind of information on her field of study, which she imparts quickly and with a heavy Irish accent.

Internet can worsen addictive and deviant behavior

Cyber-psychology is a relatively young discipline within applied psychology studies. Aiken’s specialty is forensic cyber-psychology, which studies the criminal, deviant and abnormal aspects of human behavior online — on the internet as well as in other virtual environments like networking devices or mobile communications.

Whereas forensic science deals with the physical evidence of a crime scene and forensic psychology centers on behavioral evidence, forensic cyber-psychology looks at behavioral evidence that is manifested in a cyber context, Aiken explained.

Dr. Mary Aiken inspired the American CBS TV series CSI: Cyber, starring Patricia Arquette as Avery Ryan, the head of the FBI's cyber-crime division. (YouTube screenshot)
Dr. Mary Aiken inspired the American CBS TV series CSI: Cyber, starring Patricia Arquette as Avery Ryan, the head of the FBI’s cyber-crime division. (YouTube screenshot)

The internet provides the optimum environment for amplifying and worsening all kinds of addictive and deviant behavior, she said. This stems, among others, from the anonymity it allows, in which perpetrators can act unobserved and undetected, and also from the so-called “online disinhibition effect,” in which people will do things in a cyber context that they will not do in the real world.

“The reason that we see negative behavior online — negative, through to criminal behavior — is that there is a perception that nobody is in charge,” she said. But that is it not only a perception, she underlines. “The reality is that nobody is in charge.”

Regulation has not kept up with the speed of technology changes, she said. And governments around the world must take urgent steps to set up some “sort of governance and some form of good practice,” particularly mechanisms to coordinate the fight against fight online criminality.

More machine intelligence should be directed toward flagging deviant online behavior, while a greater number of human teams should be put to work, assisted by the machines, to clamp down on crime, she said. Education of parents and children is also key, she said.

Aiken, who acts as the academic adviser to the Europol European Cybercrime Center and is also a member of the INTERPOL specialist group for crimes against children, has written a book, “The Cyber Effect,” on how human behavior changes online.

She also helped author a paper with Europol on “Youth Pathways into Cybercrime,” which explores the paths that lead youth to cyber criminality.

Wandering into a bad neighborhood

“If we are considering the impact of tech on human behavior, we have to take a developmental view. Hackers do not decide to wake up at the age of 15 and become a hacker,” she said. “So there is a developmental pathway into what I would describe as cyber juvenile delinquency.”

And just like a kid who in the real world can stumble across the wrong kind of people in a dangerous neighborhood, tech savvy kids could get embroiled into “very bad” neighborhoods — such as the dark web — online. But whereas parents may be aware their child is frequenting a real-life bad neighborhood, they generally don’t have a clue about what a bad neighborhood looks online.

In recent years teenagers in the UK and China have been arrested for cases of hacking, the Europol study said. And in April an Israeli-American teenager was suspected of making hundreds of bomb threat calls to American Jewish institutions.

An American-Israeli Jewish teenager, accused of making dozens of anti-Semitic bomb threats in the United States and elsewhere, is escorted by police as he leaves a courtroom in Rishon Lezion on March 23, 2017. (AFP/Jack Guez)
An American-Israeli Jewish teenager, accused of making dozens of anti-Semitic bomb threats in the United States and elsewhere, is escorted by police as he leaves a courtroom in Rishon Lezion on March 23, 2017. (AFP/Jack Guez)

In a recent survey conducted by an online security company, roughly one in six teenagers in the US and one in four in the UK reported that they had tried some form of hacking, the Europol document said. And law enforcement offices around the world have noted that young people, especially Information Technology literate boys, are increasingly committing cyber crime, ranging from money laundering for criminal gangs to hacking or accessing computers remotely for fraudulent activities.

Socially awkward, highly intelligent

The research found that these hackers generally had high IQs, were highly computer literate and curious about technology and came from a broad range of social classes. They were generally socially isolated, but commonly networked with groups of similar adolescents. These online peers normalized and encouraged illegal behavior.

The study found that some teenage hackers were socially awkward and withdrawn, with a high need for affiliation and affirmation. Financial gain was not always the goal, but social affiliation and increased online reputation were. These same adolescents derived pleasure from the challenge that came with the increasingly higher levels of online criminality, while the online reputation they made for themselves compensated, most times, for the lack of self-esteem they had in the real world. In addition, this behavior may become addictive, the study found.

Just as children are assessed for their intelligent quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient levels when they go to school, there also needs to be a technology quotient assessment (TQ), Aiken said.
“We don’t have a metric to measure innate or potential skill sets in children,” she said. “If we could measure that at school entry age, when these kids are four or five, we could then identify the kids who have this talent.”

Keeping kids on the right path

These children could then be mentored and nurtured within the educational system, and “most importantly” rewarded “so they would not go outside to engage in hacking activity online, where they are seeking accolades or affirmation to build their self-esteem from other cyber juvenile delinquents,” Aiken said.

Programs need to be set up to teach parents and children what are considered legitimate or illegitimate actions in the cyber domain.

“If we don’t mentor and don’t have educational protocols to teach parents, how can we possibly prosecute these kids?” she asked.

Professor Mary Aiken speaks in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2017. (Credit: Paladin Capital Group)
Professor Mary Aiken (right) speaks with The Times of Israel’s Shoshanna Solomon in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2017. (Credit: Paladin Capital Group)

Aiken visited Israel for the first time earlier this month, during the Cyber Week conference held in Tel Aviv, in her role as strategic advisor to the US CV fund Paladin Capital Group. She said she was “so impressed” with the “skill sets and entrepreneurial spirit” she encountered when meeting with Israeli students and entrepreneurs.

Paladin Capital’s first Israel investment

Paladin is a VC fund that manages more than $1 billion in investments and recently set up fund to focus on cybersecurity. Its first investment in Israel was in Karamba Security, a maker of cybersecurity technology for connected and autonomous cars.

More investments in Israel may come along the line, Aiken said. “I know there are a number of projects we are looking at in Israel,” she said. “We do actively look at this space. It is a very vibrant and interesting space and Paladin is certainly going to get more involved.”

Setting up an office in Israel “is to be decided, but it is a possibility,” she said.

On a more philosophical note, Aiken said she believes that technology itself is not good or bad, but it is either well used or poorly used by humans.

“I am absolutely pro technology,” she said. “I couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t online for a disproportionate time a day. But my concern … is the lack of understanding of the profound and pervasive impact of technology on human behavior.”

Does technology, and the unprecedented connectedness it provides, cause bad behavior, or does it actually “shine a very bright light into the darkest reaches of the human psyche?” she asked.

“And if we are talking about cybersecurity, cybersecurity starts at home,” she concluded. “We should be teaching it to kids from the point at which they get a device into their little chubby hands.”

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