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'At times Patricia Arquette gets me down to a T'

As the latest series in the CSI franchise kicks off, Gemma Dunn chats to Mary Aiken, the person behind Patricia Arquette's character, about her real-life role as a cyber psychologist

Published 30/09/2015

Crime solver: Patricia Arquette as Special Agent Avery Ryan in CSI: Cyber
Crime solver: Patricia Arquette as Special Agent Avery Ryan in CSI: Cyber

Inspired a crime TV series lately? Not many of us can mark that as accomplished on our bucket list - but for cyber psychologist Mary Aiken, it's already ticked off. CSI: Cyber - a police procedural drama and the spin-off of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - may be set in the US city of Quantico, Virginia, but the main character, Special Agent Avery Ryan, played by Patricia Arquette, is modelled on Aiken, who's based at the RCSI CyberPsychology department in Dublin.

In the show, Ryan is a behavioural psychologist-turned cyber shrink, who has set up the FBI Cyber Crime division and its "hack-for-good" scheme, where the criminals she catches work for her, to avoid prison by solving internet-related murders, cyber-theft, hacking, sexual offences and blackmail.

In layman's terms, Aiken says her own role studies the "impact of technology on human behaviour".

"We look at cutting-edge research that can generate an insight into the intersection between humans and technology, and work with agencies worldwide in terms of training and development," she says.

"This, in turn, helps law enforcers to understand the impact of technology on human behaviour from both a criminal and victim's perspective, and to reach out and help other victims."

An expert in her field, Aiken has been involved in psychology for many years, and has specifically studied cyber psychology for just over a decade. An early convert to a relatively new discipline, she has since garnered much praise for her work in the industry.

A believer that technology itself is neither good or bad - it is simply either used well or poorly by humans, Aiken explains: "We've always had crime, so you can have internet-enabled crime, such as fraud, or internet-specific crimes that didn't exist before, like hacking or network intrusion.

"But wherever technology comes into contact with a base tendency or disposition (character traits), the result tends to be amplified and accelerated online."

Aiken, who once worked on an academic project for the White House about human trafficking, sees CSI: Cyber as a great platform to educate, inform and entertain in one hit.

Concerned that today's children are being exposed to unsuitable content, Aiken poses the question: "How do we, in an age of technology, protect those who are vulnerable? Cyber security starts in the home," she notes.

"We want the show to be watched by the whole family, so it can become a conversational piece."

Aiken didn't anticipate interest in her work outside of the academic world, so she was initially surprised to be contacted by producers at CBS in relation to the show.

And today, she's excited to be at the centre of a series that highlights the discipline's cutting-edge work.

"As a producer, I'm involved with everything, from the brainstorming of ideas to the execution of the script.

"I've spent a lot of time with Patricia Arquette. She's a fabulous actress and has an intuitive feel for psychology. And while she's brought her own interpretation of the character, I am often told there are nuances that are 100% me."

Since premiering in the US this March, the show - the fourth series in the franchise - has received a fantastic reception; from those who simply enjoy watching a crime series on TV, to the most senior tech experts in the field.

"Every conference I go to, the only thing they ask me is about the show," she reveals. "It demonstrates the real-world consequences of how cyber intrudes in a positive but also a negative way, and how we can maintain that balance between real and virtual."

In the age of technology, Aiken hopes the show will teach consumers that while much crime is now inevitably cyber-led or facilitated by technology in some way, there are ways to establish a safer online presence.

The threat of hacking, which she describes as a "skill set'", "depends on the intention of the hacker, which can range from those who do it just because they can, to those who want to show a system is vulnerable (otherwise known as Ethical Hacking).

"Hackers can add value to society by helping companies to penetration test their systems."

Aiken says we need to be careful with password security to protect ourselves from becoming a high-risk victim.

"Your memory might be weak, but your passwords need to be strong - so choose carefully."

CSI Cyber airs on Channel 5 on Tuesday

Belfast Telegraph

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