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Election hacking, Trump, Brexit

9th May 201911m48s

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  • I wanna talk about election hacking and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I was just watching a TED Talk by Carole Cadwalladr. Now, if you don't know her, she's the journalist who broke the story in the Observer about Cambridge Analytica, which is the firm implicated in this, sort of, the election scandal around Brexit. They harvested millions of profiles from Facebook, illicitly it's argued, and using the data on the people that they harvested they were able to target those people with specific advertising and manipulate them. And, the argument goes that, this is one of the major factors that led to the Brexit vote resulting in what it did, which is people voting to leave the EU. Now, my position at the time was, I was I guess you could call a Remainer. I wanted to remain in the EU because I felt the economic uncertainty outweighed the benefits we would receive from leaving the EU. But once the vote happened, I decided in my mind, that fair enough, people have voted to leave now let's get on with it. Surely they'll be opportunities that have now opened up to us, as a result of taking such a decision, and we should seize those opportunities and not wasted any time thinking about what the other outcome could have been. But, of course, a lot of people in this country, and particularly in London, and London in the UK, you should keep in mind, is where we have the financial center, the political center, and, I would even argue, the media center of the UK. So a lot of journalists are based here and a lot of people were just unhappy with the result and they tried to find reasons as to why it went the way it did. And, in a way, it mirrors the reaction we saw when Donald Trump got elected. Now I'm not a particular fan of Donald Trump but it was interesting to me to see that when he was running for President, and after he got elected, people were blaming that result on various factors like Russian hacking, or Russian meddling, or in America's the Electoral College, or the fact that people who voted for him, or people who voted for Brexit were xenophobic, were racist, they were misguided, they were uneducated, they were too old to vote in the right way. Whatever, all these various reasons were put forward, and of course, very few people considered the idea, that perhaps a lot of people voted the way they did, whether it was Brexit or whether it was for Trump, because they genuinely felt, having reasoned through the ideas, that that was the best option for them. So, back to Carole Cadwalladr and Cambridge Analytica, this company obtained data they shouldn't have obtained regarding users of Facebook and they were able to use that, to manipulate public opinion in favor of Brexit. The first thing that struck me, when I heard about this was, I didn't really see what the issue was here. 'Cause in my mind, if you put something on the internet, you give it to a company like Facebook, it's not private any more. Now I know that Facebook as a company advertises itself in such a way that it tries to imply that your data will be private, unless you make it non-private. But the truth is, from a technical point of view, and as a software engineer I can say this, the only way that you can be sure that your data is private if you put it on the internet, is if, first of all, it's encrypted, heavily encrypted, using an internationally recognized encryption algorithm that's used in a recommended manner, with an encryption key that only you have and only you control. So if you encrypt something in such a manner, and you put it on the internet, then you can have some degree of confidence that it's secure. Now of course encryption isn't hundred percent secure, someone could, you know, if you use a very weak key, someone could guess your key. If the algorithm wasn't use properly then someone could perhaps just brute-force the key to your encrypted package. Or, perhaps, you store your key somewhere where it gets nicked, whatever, there are all kinds of reasons why even that is fallible. However, it gives you a much better sense of security and confidence in the idea that what you put out there is secure. So unless you have a system, which does that encryption, client-side, on your computer, in a secure manner, that no-one else can see your key, you can't be certain that the data you put out there is secure. Now think about Facebook, companies like Facebook, companies like Google, companies like Apple. You upload your photos to iCloud. You put your data, your photos, on Facebook. The connection between your computer and Facebook might be encrypted to protect the data in transit but once it gets to their servers, it's just stored as it is, and anyone at those companies can read your data. Now I'm sure they have policies within the companies to stop employees from doing this but from a technical point of view, it's possible. And that's why encryption is powerful, because if I was to encrypt it on my computer, where only I have the key, before putting it out, then it doesn't matter who tries to access the data, even if they get a copy of it, they won't be able to read it without my key. So, my thinking always has been, if I use Facebook, if I use WhatsApp, if I use Apple, Google, whatever it is, if I put something out there, I have to assume, that it could at some point, be visible to someone who shouldn't be able to see it. You never know if the server, the company gets hacked, then, maybe up until that point it was secure, but at that point once it gets hacked, it's now out there for everyone to see. So, my thinking has always been that, don't put anything out there that I don't really want other people to see. Or, if I'm gonna put it on the internet, make sure I encrypt it, and that is something I practice to this day. So when I first heard of this story, this Cambridge Analytica thing, I thought to myself," Well, look, "these people used Facebook voluntarily, "no-one forced them to use it. "Of course, it would be better if the data was secure "and that it stayed private, "but you can't really be angry "that your data somehow got into the hands of this company. "Even if they hadn't obtained it through Facebook, "what if your data had been hacked in some other way, by some hacker, and then given to somebody else?" But on top of this, what really just got me confused, was this anger at Cambridge Analytica. They've taken this data, and using this data, they could very specifically target people with very specific messages and adverts that would get these people's attentions. Because they know so much about you and that's, by the way, one of the downfalls of a platform like Facebook, that collects so much data about you and your friends, it's like they can almost build a more in-depth picture of yourself than even you realize. So they know so much about you, and that's why, if the data gets into the hands of another company, it's pretty dangerous in a way because that company now knows so much about you. So the angle was that this company, or these groups of actors let's call them, who are able to use such personal data to specifically target people, and thereby manipulate people's opinions. Now, again, when I think about this, I'm a little confused, 'cause I think, "Well, hang on a minute, "if someone has a targeted advert, that's specific to me, "sure, I mean that kinda sucks "that people could manipulate me like that, "but, at the end of the day, "it's my choice to use these platforms. "It's my choice to put the data out there." And that's the thing. Ultimately it's people's choice to use these platforms and if a person, or if large groups of people, can be manipulated so easily by adverts, the real question to ask is, why can they be manipulated so easily? Why is it so easy to manipulate people's opinions? Going back to Donald Trump, I mean people say, "well, people who voted for Trump, "just like people who voted for Brexit, "didn't really know what they were voting for. "They thought they were going to get x, "but in the end they got y "and it's because they were manipulated. "It's because of Russian meddling, "it's because of all these bots "posting this stuff on social media." Well, perhaps the problem is that people were so easy to manipulate, perhaps the problem is that people don't know how to reason for themselves. People don't know how to think for themselves. And this, by the way, is assuming that manipulation is the main culprit here. I mean, of course, if you speak to people who voted for Brexit or voted for Trump, they might well argue that they made a very rational and wise choice, given all the factors, that they really thought it through, and I'm sure some of them did. I'm sure maybe a lot of them did, but maybe there are people who were manipulated. But why were they so easy to manipulate? It's because, in my opinion, people are easy to manipulate, because they're not as well educated on the issues at hand. Just like people are saying, "But why aren't they as well educated?" "Why don't we have a culture "of wanting to get more educated on the issues at hand? "We have a culture which celebrates social media, "Instagramming, selfies, these kind of things. "But what about learning about the world around us? "Learning about politics, learning about the issues." I mean, Donald Trump, a lot of it was basically delivered in an entertainment form. The people who support him were entertained by his performances. His slogans, his little catchphrases. The little names he had for his opponents like Lyin' Ted, or Crooked Hillary, they loved that stuff. And when it came to policy, yes, he had some, big policy positions like building a wall, but these were very shallow positions. There wasn't a lot of depth to those positions, there wasn't a lot of detail to those positions, but it didn't matter, 'cause people believed that this guy was gonna deliver on what he was saying. People believed that he was the right choice, the right antidote to their frustrations with the general political class. And it worked for him, and he knew that, and he capitalized on that. This is the guy who understands TV and he drove it forward in a way that was effective for him to win. If those people had been able to better reason about issues, had been more interested in the detail, would it have worked as much? I don't think so. But people, in general now, when they look back at it, they don't really want to talk about that. It's a much harder problem to solve, if the problem is needing to educate your population. You need to change the culture of thinking or lack of thought in the general population. Its much easier to say, "Well, it's the Russian's that did it," or, "It's WikiLeaks that did it," or, "It's because people are racist," or, "It's because of the patriarchy," or, "It's because of the ," whatever the hell that means. It's much easier to point fingers at a specific group and say, if we can just censor or eliminate this group, or, if we can just remove the Electoral College then things will work out. The same with Brexit, "Oh, if we just have another referendum, "just another one, 'cause this time people know "how bad the outcome is if we leave, "and that how hard it is to leave. "If we can just do it again, "then this time we'll get the result that we want." Well, what if we don't? What if we have another referendum and again the majority vote to leave? What then? What's the conclusion going to be then? It's going to be, "Oh well, there's another "manipulation by some bot somewhere." At the end of the day, the most resilient approach to this is to ensure your populace are well educated and literate, and are able to think for themselves, and reason rationally about issues. If you can give that as a basis then it's much harder for them to be manipulated by anybody, whether left or right. And I think people should talk about that a lot more. And I think we should focus on that a lot more instead of trying to find scapegoats and easy groups to blame for the result not going the way that we want it to go.