UK cyber risk and psychology expert Professor Ted Humphreys was in Hamilton today to give a public lecture on the issues that face us in the online world. Humphreys, who has worked for major organisations such as the European Commission, Council of Europe, UN, WHO and the OECD, spoke with science reporter Jamie Morton.

What is cyber psychology? And would you say this is now an established area of research?

I think people have been looking at cyber psychology for at least 10 or more years now.

Universities, research institutes and various organisations have realised that there is a certain psychological element to using online services like email and social networks.


It's very important and significant to our lives.

A classic example might be a young teenager who has been using a social media site and has been cyber bullied, or they've had a predator on a site, or they might have developed an anxiety disorder.

There is both a social and psychological aspect to this.

The cyber world in general is changing the way we work, play and live - that's certainly the case.

And the way we spend our time and the quality of our lives is changing because of the use of technology and use of cyber space.

But I think over the last few years, at least, some of these psychological issues have been raised in profile and become headline news, although not to the extent where they have become generally well known.

Do you think it's affecting the way we communicate with each other?

Face-to-face communication is different to online communication.

In online communication, you think you are having a private conversation, and you think your small group of friends on a social network is all private and closed but it can easily spread out.

It's also living in a world that has become the extension of our real world, where it's not unreal, but at the same time it's not real.

It's virtual communication: and some people feel safe in that way, until something goes wrong and then they get an emotional problem.

Of course, some people will say things online that they wouldn't say face to face, because they don't have the courage to.

They don't know what the reaction is going to be: the other person may get angry, but they can't see that anger online.

Do you have any concerns about social media users being locked into feedback loops, where their views are projected back to them and aren't challenged?

I guess it depends on the effect it has - people are free in most countries to say what they want.

People can cluster together and I don't see what can be done about it.

But, if we can respect that everybody has their own opinion about something - whether it's a political or cultural issue - then, unless it's a precursor to a crime or inciting a riot, it's just people voicing their own opinions.

In your lecture, you speak about the manipulation of peoples' thoughts and feelings. Can you explain how this happens?

One of the examples of this is various scams that people are engaged with.

A long time ago there was an email that went around with "I love you" as a subject line, and a large number of people reacted to that.

Today's scams could include someone offering you to share their inheritance, or you might get your bank sending your email, but it's just a bogus email.

These are ways of trying to persuade people to do something.

The other way is getting people to do things by forming a trust relationship with that person.

As human beings, we don't think someone is going to be doing anything bad to us, so we've got this innate trust: and you can work on that trust by being polite and kind.

And slowly, you can seed thoughts into someone's head to get them to give you their passwords.

Do you feel big data - particularly how it's collected and who owns it - is still a huge issue the world is grappling with?

The world is moving very fast with big data and it's solving some very important problems, where we need to analyse vast volumes of data.

On that side of things, there are clearly some big benefits to society, businesses and governments.

But, on the security side, while some big data is able to be protected with current techniques, because of the nature of it, and the analytic tools now being used, some of it is more difficult to protect with traditional methods.

So, therefore there is a lot of research going on in developing new security mechanisms to protect our data.