While the internet can offer some valuable medical information, Irish cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken believes there are many worrying aspects to the trend of online self-diagnosis.
Intuitive diagnostic websites can provide answers regarding symptoms that may cause concern. However, she says the web also has the potential to increase anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when people use search engines to diagnose themselves.
People can escalate during online symptom search, starting with headache and then clicking on brain tumour and feeling anxious as a result of reading serious and morbid content. She says anxiety that happens as a result of escalation during health related search online is known in the field of cyberpsychology as cyberchondria.
"In this age of cyberchondria, medical consumers appear at the doctor's doorstep having researched their symptoms on the internet. Perhaps open access to complex medical information may compromise the conventional gatekeepers of knowledge and diagnostic expertise. However can "Dr Google" undertake to abide by the long established Hippocratic oath? Primum non nocere (first do no harm)."
As director of the RCSI Cyber Psychology Research Centre, cyberchondria is just one of many areas Aiken focuses on. She is also involved in many forensic cyberpsychology research areas including organised cybercrime, virtual behavioural profiling, cyberanalytics and cyberstalking.
Her work in the field of cyberpsychology has inspired a spinoff of American television drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which was previously named the most watched show in the world.
The pilot of the new series, called CSI: Cyber, has already aired in the US and will air on RTÉ this week.
In the show, the character of special agent Avery Ryan (inspired by Aiken), is tasked to solve high-octane crimes that start in the mind, live online and play out in the real world. Ryan, who will be played by Emmy Award winner Patricia Arquette, heads up the cybercrime division of the FBI in the programme, which has been commissioned by US network CBS.
This is the first time in a CSI show where a female is leading the charge.
"The pilot aired in the US in May and was a back-door pilot in that it was embedded into the existing series of CSI: Las Vegas. The character was first introduced that way," Aiken says.
She says the spinoff explores technology, as we know it, and how human behaviour has become amplified online.
"CSI first introduced the world to forensic crime, CSI: Cyber will shed light on a new age of crime. Cybercrime is a global issue, no one is safe and it can affect anyone. There are new headlines popping up on this subject every day."
“The series is now commissioned. We are writing and filming at the moment. It will air in the US next spring and in Ireland later in the year.”
In 2013, Aiken co-led a White House research team focused on tackling technology facilitated human-trafficking.
The proposals presented at the White House were part of a series of technology-based concepts aimed at tackling the international problem of human-trafficking.
“I was invited by the Obama administration at the White House to work on a research project. I worked on it with Network scientists from MIT and the project took almost a year. Our work in this area came to the attention of CBS. I was surprised when they contacted me and invited me to meet with them,” Aiken says.
"The next thing we were all working on a pilot for the show CSI: Cyber, it aired, did very well, and then the series was commissioned. It happened very quickly."
Aiken says Ireland is a centre of excellence for cyberpsychology with undergraduate programmes, master’s programmes, and now a number of doctoral researchers, and a dedicated cyberpsychology research centre providing expertise at national and international levels.
“There is an opportunity for Ireland to set the standard worldwide. We have the tech companies and the expertise. Now we need to pull these two together. We could create a better cybersociety if we combine the two and show leadership in this area.
“We want to be a knowledge box community. We need to focus on this area, there should be nothing more important than incentivising companies to create a better cyberspace for all.”
Aiken, an observer to the Interpol specialists group on crimes against children, says keeping vulnerable children and young people safe online is a priority for the RCSI research centre.
The centre is involved in a two-year project which aims to identify new strategies for police and statutory authorities to help them tackle these issues.
“At the RCSI research centre our aim is to deliver insight at the intersection between humans and technology, and to create a cyberenvironment and cybersociety that reflects everything we aspire to in a real world context.”
“One of the biggest concerns that we have from a policing perspective is the growth of organised cybercrime online. In an age of ubiquitous technology everybody has a device or mobile phone. It provides a much greater accessibility and attack surface for cybercriminals.”
Aiken is also an academic advisor to the European cybercrime centre at Europol and contributed to the Europol Organised Crime Threat Assessment report, focusing on the "Cyberpsychology of internet facilitated organised crime".
She says minimisation or lack of authority figures online contributes to “cyber feral” behaviour.
“In a real world context you have parents, relatives, neighbours, teachers, shopkeepers, police and so on, who will advise a young person to desist from certain antisocial behaviours – however online, you don’t have any of these authority figures, there is a perception that no one is in charge – and that’s because no one is.”
She has just returned from Los Angeles where she presented to the FBI on the cyberpsychology of cybercrime, and worked on set on the new series CSI:Cyber.
"My own life is quite a mix of real world and virtual world at the moment" she said. Innovation E-mag: At irishtimes.com Find out more about a dozen Irish disruptors – including Mary Aiken – who are changing their world in our new innovation e-mag at irishtimes.com/innovation