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Maintaining online identity after a cognitive impairment: Experiences, challenges and solutions


   Department of Computer and Information Sciences

   Applications accepted all year round  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

This vital PhD focusses on how people can continue to use their online accounts after a cognitive impairment – for example, a brain injury or the onset of dementia. Online accounts include social media, government and council services, banking, email, and gaming. It will concentrate on the development of digital technologies to help people to remain online after cognitive impairment, and creation of online ‘Power of Attorney’ protocols which would enable a named person to help them. 

Background

Online accounts help people to keep in touch with family and friends, make social arrangements, share experiences and memories, manage their finances, access resources, and make use of government services. These accounts are password-protected and specific to each individual. They are - mostly - not intended to be shared.

So what happens when someone is incapacitated through an accident or an illness, and cannot use their accounts unaided due to cognitive difficulties? - for example, a brain injury or dementia.

Offline, the role of 'Power of Attorney' (POA) helps. One or more appointed people (known as 'attorneys') can help an individual to make decisions - or make decisions on their behalf if necessary. For example, they can access a person's bank accounts on their behalf. Online there is no easy solution. Users who have developed a cognitive impairment may not be able to remember their user name or password, or even what accounts they have. Or they may struggle with using accounts once signed in. This is a problem, as they may lose access to their online accounts at a time when they could be really useful - for example in maintaining contact with friends, and applying for disability benefits.

It is not clear whether (and how) formal or informal Attorneys may interact with online accounts in these circumstances. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and online accounts are largely not set up to help existing users who have lost capacity. Technology based support - such as machine learning approaches to supporting users - are absent.

PhD Focus

Areas of potential exploration sit at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction, Cybersecurity and Law. For example:

  • What are people's experiences of trying to access their online accounts after they are cognitively incapacitated? What are carers’ experiences?
  • What are the differences in user requirements between temporary and permanent incapacity?
  • How can ISPs and online platforms enable other people - or a technology-based tool - to access a user's accounts on their behalf, when that user is incapacitated?
  • How should online POA be activated? For example, through submission of medical evidence? How might global platforms manage this when POA may be different in each national jurisdiction?
  • Should a user's profile signal to others that their online account is operated under POA?
  • How can online Power of Attorney be incorporated into current legal and governmental practices and protocols regarding Power of Attorney?
  • What formal legal approaches to recognising Power of Attorney in online spaces exist, in the UK and internationally?

We are looking for a highly motivated student with:

  • a deep interest in challenges at the intersection of lived human experiences and digital technologies.
  • an Undergraduate degree (1st class or good 2:1)
  • a relevant Master’s degree would be an advantage
  • Background in any area relevant to cybersecurity including but not limited to Human Computer Interaction, Computer Science, Psychology, Digital Anthropology, Law, Social Sciences. 

All studentships offer a generous tax-free stipend and tuition fees to support UK students. PhD scholars spend the first year undertaking comprehensive formal training followed by 2.5 years of focused research.

Applications

Applicants should complete and upload the prescribed list of required documentation to include:

  1. Application form
  2. Academic transcripts of degrees
  3. Names and contact details of two academic referees
  4. Academic CV
  5. Sample of academic writing (e.g. essay, dissertation chapter)
  6. A statement up to 1,500 words, detailing how you would approach the research

Informal enquiries can be made by email to Professor Wendy Moncur (). Please entitle your email “PhD enquiry 2022”.


Funding Notes

UK level fees provided via a departmental scholarship. I wasn’t sure what boxes to check above as I’d accept a UK student who would get a full scholarship (fees and stipend), or an International student who can top up the UK fees, or a self-funded international student.

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