Interview: Dr Mary Aiken

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Dr Mary Aiken is a pretty big deal. Her bio is so extensive that it has to sit in a separate box-out. Let’s just say, Mary is the world’s leading expert in cyber-psychology, an academic advisor to EC3 at Europol, the inspiration behind the Hollywood TV show CSI: Cyber and a successful book author. At Infosecurity Europe, she was inducted into the Infosecurity Europe Hall of Fame. Eleanor Dallaway conducted the interview and tells Mary’s story

Usually when I conduct these profile interviews, I do so in a relatively private environment, with a couple of hours blocked out to try and truly walk in the shoes of my interviewee.

I do not meet Mary under these circumstances. Instead, we meet backstage at Infosec, five minutes before she is inducted into the Infosecurity Hall of Fame. This inter       view therefore takes place onstage in the keynote theater in front of a live audience. It’s not intimate and I’m not sure I got to walk in Mary’s shoes – time and circumstance didn’t permit – although I’m sure if I had, they’d be very nice shoes.

Mary is focused, self-assured, professional and impressive. She has presence and appears completely at ease holding court on stage.

Despite the unconventional setting for this interview, I’d like to very conventionally start at the beginning of Mary’s story. “When I was much younger, I used to collect insects. I was fascinated by them, so I was always interested in forensics, even as a seven-year-old.” Mary began with a degree in psychology, followed with post-graduate forensic psychology, and then worked in industry for many years in consumer behavioral profiling. 

It was in the early 90s when Mary first came across artificial intelligence in the form of a chatbot, which ultimately would lead her into a career in cyber. “A friend of mine, Rollo Carpenter, was developing a chatbot called ‘Jabberwacky’ and I found it incredible and envisioned the applications it could be capable of, say for example, for people who are socially isolated or for kids with learning difficulties or on the spectrum. I then considered that the chatbot could perhaps reinforce negative behaviors.” 

The World’s Greatest

It was at this point that Mary realized there was a gap in her study of psychology: nothing had equipped her to understand the impact of technology on humans. At the turn of the 21st century she came across the term ‘cyber-psychology’ and, as the saying goes, has never turned back.

“It was one of those eureka moments, I thought ‘this is the future’ although everyone told me that I was wrong. They called it ‘cyber hocus pocus that would never last’, and now here we are.” Cyber-psychology, she considers, is now recognized as an important discipline that can deliver explanatory value “illuminating the intersection between humans and technology.”

Mary certainly plugged that gap in her studies. She earned a Master’s of Science in Cyber Psychology, a PhD in Forensic Cyber Psychology and a fellowship in Cyber Psychology, Information and Communication Technology, Network Science and Criminology. “The study was invaluable in getting me where I am today,” she says, a great advocate of Henry Ford’s philosophy that learning throughout life keeps you young. 

“For me, cyber-psychology had this fantastic ability to deliver insight. While I was doing my Masters I was thinking about the doctorate area and I went back to my love of forensics.” Mary loved forensic psychology, she loved cyber-psychology and so it was a logical decision to focus her doctorate research on forensic cyber-psychology.

She attributes her success to her willingness to step outside her comfort zone, take a holistic view of problems and challenges and an ability to articulate through multiple disciplines. “At this moment in time, just at this moment in time, I’m probably the most qualified person in this space in the world.” There are others coming through, she adds, “but I saw it first academically, so I managed to get there first”, she smiles. 

Cyber-psychology is now recognized as an important discipline that can deliver explanatory value illuminating the intersection between humans and technologyDr Mary Aiken

On the topic of academia, I ask Mary how she views the cyber skills gap that the industry faces and she tells me about a research project she has just completed for Europol, looking at formally creating a TQ – a technology quotient scale. (There is currently IQ, CQ – creative quotient and EQ – emotional quotient.)

“We could measure TQ on latent - or innate - ability in terms of technology. Then at school entry age, we could spot those kids who have those skill sets,” she explains. Those children could then be nurtured, mentored and create a pipeline into computer science and ultimately the cybersecurity sector. “If these skills could be recognized, reinforced and rewarded within the educational system from an early age, then there may be less of an incentive for young kids getting involved in hacking and criminal behavior.”

With more current job titles than most have in an entire lifetime, I ask Mary what she considers her ‘day job’. “I don’t really have one, I’m a slacker,” she jokes, adding, “I think they call it going plural, I do a lot of things simultaneously.” She balances her research-based role at Europol with her research projects at University College Dublin and Middlesex University, and her work at Interpol working with the specialist group for crimes against children.

In between all the research, there is also a lot of travel. Mary tells me an anecdote about a recent book tour (we’ll come back to her book), when she was speaking at an event in Norway. “Newsnight wanted some comment from me on the Facebook moderator piece and they tracked me down to this fjord in Norway and asked for a live feed. So, I was in my bedroom in the hotel trying to figure out how to set up the live feed. I balanced my computer on top of a waste paper basket on top of a desk and I was pulling curtains to get the right light so I could Skype for broadcast on BBC.” This story tells me three things: that Mary is such a desirable speaker that BBC are willing to accept a computer balanced on a bin; that Mary is totally right when she says she “goes plural” and that she is enterprising and willing to look outside of the box.

When Hollywood Calls

A few years ago, whilst working on a research program for the White House (that in itself sounds ridiculously impressive), Mary received a call from Hollywood. William Morris – who at the time she thought to be a cigarette company, but soon realized was actually an entertainment and media company – asked to meet Mary to talk about cyber-psychology. Highly skeptical, Mary was, in her words, doing everything wrong. “I wasn’t available, I was too busy, I didn’t want to do it. I eventually turned up for a 15-minute interview with a person that I thought was an intern at CBS and turned out to be the president.” The 15-minute interview turned into three hours and at the end, they told Mary they’d like to make a TV show based on her work. Her response? “Can I get back to you?”

She eventually said yes and reflects on the experience by saying “it was fun, it was a privilege to be involved with Hollywood”. Patricia Arquette played Mary in CSI: Cyber, “which is as surreal as it sounds. I will never get used to writing down words and seeing them come out of her mouth on television. It was a fantastic experience.” 

Dr Mary Aiken
Dr Mary Aiken

Mary did not take a backseat on set either. She got involved with the casting, wardrobe, special effects and scripting. “I got a call from the producers and I thought, ‘oh god, here’s where I get fired for interfering’…but they said they would make me a producer on the show, which technically means I get points and stuff.” Initially, Mary declined the offer, thinking that it would mean she had to invest money, “but they said ‘no we’re not asking for your money, we’re trying to give you more money.’” She, of course, accepted. “The important thing is that it was an incredible opportunity for me to actually inform and educate in terms of cybersecurity awareness. The series aired in 170 countries.”

How to ‘Ruin’ an Academic Career

Mary’s foray into popular culture didn’t end with the small screen though. She got another call: this time, to write a ‘popular book’. “I’d written lots of academic papers but wasn’t sure about a popular book. They told me it meant shorter sentences and less references, and I thought I could probably do that.”

The book is essentially about the impact of technology on human kind. When I was asked to moderate the Hall of Fame interview with Mary on stage at Infosecurity Europe, I did what any good journalist would: I bought the book and started reading. I did it for the sake of preparedness, but, that aside, I’m so glad I did. The book is a great read – thoroughly terrifying at times, but certainly thought-provoking and fascinating.

“I wrote the book to put in print everything I was worried about. From a law enforcement perspective, I see the worst that the net has to offer and I wanted to start a conversation about it with a view to fixing what’s wrong.”

I ask Mary what message she wants readers to take from her book, if she could pick only one, and she takes a moment to think. “It’s all about the fact that we’re losing control. So, whether it’s infants with smartphones and iPads, young kids engaging in cyber-bullying or trolling, problems with online dating, or cybersecurity issues in terms of hacking all comes down to how much control we want to exercise over technology, or how much we will allow technology to control us.”

She considers the book her proudest achievement, perhaps as she was up against the odds. “One academic said to me ‘oh dear god Mary, many a fine academic career has been ruined by a popular book.’” The Cyber Effect was international journal book of the year and Sunday Times book of the year. It’s on sale in over 100 different countries and China has bought the right to the book. “So here’s to ruining an academic career”, she smiles proudly.

Mary certainly doesn’t regret going down the ‘popular’ route, nor in fact, does she regret anything. “I don’t fundamentally believe in regret as a principle. It’s easy after the fact to regret things but it’s terrible to second guess your own decision making. So own it, move forward and always make decisions with the information that you have at any given point of time.”

Human at the Heart

I ask Mary about the work she does with Europol. “I academically advise and support the work they do”, she says. Expanding, she adds, “I work in the higher level architecture or typologies that inform the classification of criminal behavior.”

It was fun, it was a privilege to be involved with HollywoodDr Mary Aiken

As an example, she has done a lot of work on cyber-stalking. “Cyber-stalking is stalking mediated by technology, but the behavior changes because technology affords a cyber-stalker the ability to stalk multiple victims simultaneously. It’s not just a glimpse of intimacy, it’s actually access to somebody’s life, their photos, their diaries, their correspondence, their network, everything.”

When the National Crime Agency conducted research into cyber-stalking and sexualized online behavior, Mary disseminated the information for the BBC on Crimewatch. She truly is the number one expert in her field, and her passion and intelligence is abundant.

So where do you go from being the world’s leading expert in your field? What is there left to achieve? “I’d like to make a documentary based on my book. That could be fun.” It sounds like the wheels are already in motion, with Mary already in conversation with a few different production companies. “I like to engage in new challenges as I get bored easily.” I struggle to comprehend how Mary can even find the time to get bored.

When she’s not analyzing the current threats and cyber-landscape, Mary ponders the future. “I get very concerned when I see research moving from basic artificial intelligence towards deep learning and even the engineers who work in this research admit they will lose control of the process.”

It doesn’t surprise me to hear that Mary already has a plan. She is currently working with a professor of artificial intelligence to “create our own start up looking at new mathematical theories with algorithms to inform AI technologies to make sure that the human stays at the center of the process.” She’s going to be looking at insight and intuition: “I will ensure that the human always stays at the center of the process because the point at which we shift over and allow AI to dominate is going to be a problem for us.”

Mary gives an example of where AI, lacking human interaction, can go very wrong. “You could ask AI to find a machine that would cure cancer. The AI would learn everything about cancer, look at every academic journal, every blood test, biopsy and report and would come back and say ‘I have a 100% cure for cancer’. The cure would be to kill every human, the point at which is the perfect cure for cancer.”

Dr Mary Aiken, on stage at Infosecurity Europe
Dr Mary Aiken, on stage at Infosecurity Europe

As I formally induct Dr Mary Aiken into the Infosecurity Hall of Fame, she asks to leave the audience with one final thought. “When we talk about the internet and we talk about negative behavior, there’s a causation correlation model. Does technology cause bad behavior through this connectivity that it has delivered? Or, is the internet, connectivity, and the manifestation of behavior just shining a very bright light into the darkest reaches of the human psyche? My concern is that maybe we’re all just Game of Thrones underneath it all.” This is a theme explored in her book and part of the reason that it’s a sometimes chilling read.

Here’s to Dr Mary Aiken, utterly deserving of her induction into the Infosecurity Europe Hall of Fame, and a truly fascinating expert

Mary on Encryption Backdoors

A few days before I met Mary I stumbled across a Twitter debate that she was involved in regarding governments and backdoors in encryption. I asked her to expand on her – arguably controversial – views on the matter. This is what she had to say:

“Let’s think about cyber-space in terms of an environment: on the far left we have the keyboard warriors, the ‘hands off the internet, this is our space’ and this premise of frontieralism that we shouldn’t have any governance. Then on the far right, we have industry and effectively they also want less governance because governance costs money. Their motive is one of profit. The rest of the 99.9% of us – and our children – get to live in the middle and not have any say in this space.

A friend of mine who works at Interpol, Mick Moran, has said that we’re facing a tsunami of criminality coming at us down the line, online. We’re going to have to think about governance in this space, and I know people feel very uncomfortable about it but if we do not have some form of governance in cyber-context, that will negatively impact on real world social order.

There are three silos and three aims that are in apparent conflict; the aim of privacy, the aim of collective security and an aim of the vitality of the tech industry. To achieve a balance in cyber-space, none of those aims can have primacy over the other. I am very concerned from a policing and governance point of view when there are encrypted domains that are effectively beyond the law or not within easy and timely capacity of policing. It will be almost impossible to deliver on collective security in real-time when this information is obfuscated.”

Biography: Dr Mary Aiken

Mary Aiken is an associate professor at the University College Dublin, Geary Institute for Public Policy, and academic advisor (Psychology) to the European Cyber Crime Centre (EC3) at Europol. She is a lecturer in Criminology and research Fellow at the School of Law, Middlesex University and a Fellow of the Society for Chartered IT Professionals. Mary is a sense making Fellow at the IBM Network Science Research Centre, and has served as a distinguished professor of the Practice of Cyber Analytics at AIRS. She is a member of The Hague Justice Portal advisory board and director of the Cyberpsychology Research Network.  

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