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Start Can You ‘Hack’ the Human Body?
04 August 2017

Can You ‘Hack’ the Human Body?

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A hacker in the United States must show how far he would be willing to go in order to join a group of cybercriminals. There are no limits. The young man decides to hack a roller coaster, killing several of the riders. “What happens in the virtual world impacts the real world,” says cyberpsychologist and FBI special agent Avery Ryan. This entire plot is part of the TV series CSI: Cyber. Nothing is real. Nothing, that is, except the statement from Agent Ryan, which actually belongs to one of the most influential (real-world) cyberpsychologists. Mary Aiken holds a doctorate in psychology, is a pioneer in this new field, and is blond—as she herself jokes—just like the character inspired by her on CSI.

On the right, FBI special agent Avery Ryan with her team. Credit: CSI:Cyber

The increasing reliance on technology is changing our behaviour and has made us more confident and uninhibited on the Internet and therefore more vulnerable. The need for connectivity has spread to our entire surroundings, even reaching our own bodies. And if we are connected, we are hackable…

Aiken specializes in studying the impact that technology has on our behaviour and on online criminal behaviour. “I study human interactions with technology and digital media: anything from cellphones to cyborgs. But mostly I concentrate on Internet psychology. If something qualifies as “technology” and has the potential to change human behaviour, I want to look at how—and consider why,” Aiken said during her conference at Cyber ​​Week 2017 in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the end of June.

At this meeting focused on cybersecurity, Aiken explained the main ideas of her work, which have served her in repeated collaborations with Interpol, the FBI and the White House, among other agencies. The first concept is that people behave differently when interacting through technology than in the real world. One of the main effects is anonymity. “It’s the modern-day equivalent of that superhero power invisibility. It also fuels online disinhibition.”

Everything is amplified in the virtual world

Her second idea: “I have been involved in a dozen different research silos, and have studied everything from organized cybercrime to cyberchondria—health anxiety facilitated and amplified by doing online medical searches—and the one thing I have observed over and over again is that human behaviour is often amplified and accelerated online.” Aiken has a name for this: the cyber effect. “Altruism, for example, is amplified online—which means that people can be more generous and giving in cyberspace than they are face-to-face. We see this phenomenon in the extraordinary growth of non-profit crowdfunding online. Another known effect of cyberspace is that people can be more trusting of others they encounter online, and can disclose information more quickly. It means that people tend to feel safe when they aren’t. Due to the online disinhibition effect, individuals can act as if they were drunk,” she describes in depth in her book with the same name: The Cyber Effect.

Cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken. Credit:

Aiken’s last key idea​​ is about how individuals ignore all these changes that occur in them. Humans are adaptable and adjust our behaviour when we change environments: new job, new city or new country. “Many people deny the awareness that they’ve entered a new environment when they go online, so they remain ignorant—and are fooled by their sense that nothing has changed. They are sitting in their own homes, surrounded by familiar objects, after all, and their bodies are resting in the cushions of familiar chairs and sofas. But their minds have “gone” somewhere. The conditions and qualities of the online environment are different from real life. That is why our instincts, which were honed for the real world, fail us in cyberspace.”

Virtual evidence at the scene of the crime

Within cyberpsychology, Aiken specializes in forensics, which is dedicated to studying the evidence of virtual behaviour that is left at the scene of the crime. “As I like to think of it, the cyber footprint.” Aiken points out that the study of virtual traces remains very similar to real traces. “Every contact leaves a trace. This is just as true in cyberspace.”

This work deals with predicting the virtual behaviour of individuals, studying juvenile cybercrime—often manifested as hacking—to creating profiles about criminal behaviour such as cyber bullying. New technologies are closely related to her work. Aiken explores the solutions that artificial intelligence can bring—as a way of finding patterns about paedophiles—and also the problems that these can entail. For example, Aiken considers that Big Data is a technology that has facilitated human trafficking.

One of the early influences on Mary Aiken was J.C.R. Licklider, an American psychologist and computer scientist who wrote the work Man-Computer Symbiosis back in 1960. This essay predates the birth of the Internet, but the potential for a symbiotic relationship between humans and machines was already advancing.

Bodies connected to ‘hackable’ machines

This relationship -man and technology-  has become more real since the development of the brain and computer interface (BIC). This technology was created more than a decade ago by major research centres around the world, and has also been applied for some years by some of the most important magnates in the world of technology, such as Mark Zuckerberg—founder of Facebook—and Elon Musk, creator of Tesla and Space X.

They are all trying to overcome this last barrier: to connect our brain with computers to be able to interact with the outside world. The consequences of obtaining a real connection seem like science fiction: people with spinal cord injuries who can control their wheelchair with their thoughts or having the ability to increase our human capabilities. This connection is the second way of hacking our body.

But it is not the last. The unstoppable need for connectivity has caused millions of objects to be connected to the Internet. Fridges, washing machines, cars or lamps can already be controlled with an app. But the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) will not just stop at objects, but will also reach the human body. Prostheses or pacemakers that can be checked without surgical operations already exist; they are connected and, therefore, hackable.

Millions of objects, prostheses or pacemakers are connected to the Internet and they become hackable. Credit: MaxPixel

And according to John Lyons, founder of the International Cybersecurity Alliance, “in about five years we will be able to record everything about our medical condition and transmit it live to our doctors. If you are diabetic you will know immediately if you need to take less or more sugar. This interaction will bring benefits, but also threats. The concern will no longer be about whether you have lost money in your bank account, but whether a hacker can make your heart stop beating.”

Beatriz Guillén Torres


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