Mentor TalkTalk hackers, don't criminalise them, says cyberpsychologist

mary aiken sportsfile web summit
Cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken advises Europol on criminals' behaviour patterns online © Sportsfile/Web Summit

What sort of punishment should TalkTalk hackers face? They shouldn't, according to cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken, who says authorities should deploy their 'incredible skillset' elsewhere instead.

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Teenagers involved in online attacks such as the TalkTalk hack should be mentored rather than criminalised, to ensure society benefits from 'their incredible skillset', according to cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken.

“As a society, do we really want to criminalise 13, 14 and 15 year olds? Or do we want to understand their behaviour, engage with their incredible skillset, mentor them and try to point them in the right direction,” she said at Web Summit this week.

Police arrested a fourth individual in connection with the data breach this week: a 16-year-old boy in Norwich. It follows the arrests of three other individuals aged 15, 16 and 20 since the hack last month, which saw them steal thousands of TalkTalk customers' personal details.

Aiken suggested the focus should turn to the motivations behind such attacks, for example whether it was for profit or revenge.

For example, she said, the hack on Sony last year was not motivated by the planned release of the film The Interview (which featured a plot to assassinate of Kim Jong-Un), which led many to conclude it had been orchestrated by North Korea.

“If the motive was stopping the release of the movie, how come it got released on sites that cost 4.99 from GoDaddy? Why were those websites not brought down and all those credit cards to purchase it unaffected? It comes back to motive. The movie was released; it was never about the movie,” she said.

Aiken said the negative connotations around hacking stopped it from being properly understood, and thus combatted.

“The point is: hacking is a skillset. It’s somehow become a pejorative and negative term, but back in the 50s when it was first used, and even through to the 70s, it was considered as a spectacular skillset,” she said.

Instead of “sleepwalking its way into a new and evolving world”, authorities should focus on understanding how tech, 'cyberspace' and psychology interact, particularly if they wish to develop a better approach to coping with online attacks, Aiken suggested.

“We know a lot about criminology. We know a kid in a particular neighborhood with a particular group of friends might get sucked into juvenile delinquency. We don't know anything about cyber juvenile delinquency,” she said.

However Aiken raised titters in the audience with her 'favourite' take on hacking (possibly said in jest): the Freudian psychoanalytic approach.

“This actually conceptualises hacking in Freudian terms as a cybersexual urge to penetrate. And there are castration complex overtones, in terms of being cut off from the network,” she said.

Aiken is director of Ireland's RSCI CyberPsychology Centre, advises EU police Europol on criminal behaviour patterns online and inspired Patricia Arquette's character in CSI:Cyber.

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