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Digital Threats to Democracy—Real and Imagined

Michael O'Dwyer| February 06 2018

| security


Democracy is in many ways about protecting freedoms, the freedom of the press, the freedom to bear arms, to arm bears, to vote in elections, and much more. With the advancement of technology, many feel these freedoms are under threat and the alleged Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential election has brought the subject under intense scrutiny.

The Outsized Impact of Social Media

According to the Economist, several social media platforms were impacted by Russian interference. From early 2015 to August 2017, 146m Facebook users have seen Russian misinformation. In addition, YouTube admitted to 1,108 videos with Russian links and Twitter had more than 36,000 Russian-linked accounts. The story went on to say that instead of bringing enlightenment, social media had instead been spreading poison.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t “want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy” and according to a story on WGBH “gave Harvard's Kennedy School of Government a $500,000 grant to study digital threats to democracy and develop plans for campaigns to defend themselves from attacks.” The result, available on YouTube and worth a watch, brought cybersecurity experts together to solve the problem, identifying threat actors and proposing solutions for the future. Zuckerberg deserves some credit for being proactive.

So, what are the key digital threats to democracy? Can they be prevented?

Our reliance on technology has accelerated its potential to do perceived harm. But harm, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, right? If you have the money to promote some gun-toting fascist as a political candidate, then you can do it. Similarly, ‘having a Bud’ is seen by many as a good thing but by families with alcoholics, not so much. We need a reality check to determine just how much harm these digital threats can do and how to prevent them.

“When adequate transparency and democratic control are lacking, the erosion of the system is to be expected. The threats, whether digital or legacy will always exist. How aggressively we deal with them may be a function of how healthy a democracy really is...,” said Jason Towns, managing partner at Groundwork Ventures, a San Francisco based firm, providing access to capital & connections to top startup founders in overlooked groups while helping investors build more inclusive portfolios.

Data Security

Most will agree that we need to be online, connected, etc. before digital threats become an issue to democracy or anything else. Logically, being connected is the big problem, and we should encourage all our politicians to disconnect immediately. Get them off social media and let them stick to printed publications only. Problem solved.

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Unfortunately, this won’t work at all because those involved in electing politicians, campaign managers and their ilk, love to collect data. However, they don’t seem to be able to protect it. Almost 200m US citizens’ data personal details were exposed by a Republican-contracted marketing firm. In addition, voting systems in 21 states were hacked.

Obviously, there is a big problem with data security, with data loss typically occurring due to moronic behavior. A public document on an Amazon cloud that leaks 200m citizens’ personal data. Give me a break.

Using this data to predict voter behavior is easy for those with the prerequisite skills in data analytics and is the key reason for protecting large data sets.

How can democracy be secured against digital threats when they involve manipulation of social media, purchased ads and analysis of polls and other data before elections take place?

“By holding media platforms responsible for the content displayed.  Also, blockchain tech has the potential to bring more transparency to the online ad space,” said Towns.

Agreed, when platforms generate revenue with ads, they are responsible for content or should be.

Online Etiquette

We’ve all seen trolls online. Intellectually-challenged individuals, fresh from wetting their beds, placing worthless comments on high-profile news sites that only serve to demonstrate their own ignorance. Similarly, on social media, these mutant cabbages are often seen offering their opinions on the latest issues, however trivial these issues may be.

Unfortunately, as if this was not enough, state-sponsored programs now allegedly include the manipulation of social media and the creation of multiple automated solutions (known as bots) that behave online as if they were real people. This is thanks to improvements in AI and related script development. A single bot can grow an organic following in the same way we do…

Again, I ask. Where’s the threat?

If you use social media, where do you spend it most? Twitter? Facebook? Instagram? Regardless of your chosen platform, how likely are you to change your political or deeply held convictions based on advertisements or individual posts? Not likely, I believe. If any of these bots become intrusive, you block them. End of story. Where are these morons that are influenced by social media?

Even noted print and news publications have political leanings that are apparent after reading a few articles so why should social media be any different?

In conclusion, while digital threats exist, I’m not sure that I’d be swayed by social media ads, bots or the more obvious methods mentioned. There are other concerns worthier of attention if generating fear amongst the populace is the desired effect.

“The cyber threat I worry about most would be attacks against the industrial Internet of Things. Power plants, dams, airport control towers have unfortunately become soft targets,” said Towns., adding that “The idea of democracy is absolutely worth protecting and worth building towards. However, let’s not forget that there are communities who (even in 2018) still don’t get to fully participate in that concept. That is a bigger threat to our democracy than anything else.”

Topics: security

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An Irishman based in Hong Kong, Michael O’Dwyer is a business & technology journalist, independent consultant and writer who specializes in writing for enterprise, small business and IT audiences. With 20+ years of experience in everything from IT and electronic component-level failure analysis to process improvement and supply chains (and an in-depth knowledge of Klingon,) Michael is a sought-after writer whose quality sources, deep research and quirky sense of humor ensures he’s welcome in high-profile publications such as The Street and Fortune 100 IT portals.

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