Information Attacks against Democracies

democracies draw upon the disagreements within their population to solve problems. Different political groups have different ideas of how to govern, and those groups vie for political influence by persuading voters. There is also long-term uncertainty about who will be in charge and able to set policy goals. Ideally, this is the mechanism through which a polity can harness the diversity of perspectives of its members to better solve complex policy problems. When no-one knows who is going to be in charge after the next election, different parties and candidates will vie to persuade voters of the benefits of different policy proposals.

Contrast this with an autocracy. There, common political knowledge about who is in charge over the long term and what their policy goals are is a basic condition of stability. Autocracies do not require common political knowledge about the efficacy and fairness of elections, and strive to maintain a monopoly on other forms of common political knowledge. They actively suppress common political knowledge about potential groupings within their society, their levels of popular support, and how they might form coalitions with each other. On the other hand, they benefit from contested political knowledge about nongovernmental groups and actors in society. If no one really knows which other political parties might form, what they might stand for, and what support they might get, that itself is a significant barrier to those parties ever forming.

This difference has important consequences for security. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to information attacks that challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge. They are vulnerable to outside information that demonstrates that the government is manipulating common political knowledge to their own benefit. And they are vulnerable to attacks that turn contested political knowledge­ — uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions­ — into common political knowledge. As such, they are vulnerable to tools that allow people to communicate and organize more easily, as well as tools that provide citizens with outside information and perspectives.

.. For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn’t pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.

.. Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

.. In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

  1. .. First, we need to better defend the common political knowledge that democracies need to function. That is, we need to bolster public confidence in the institutions and systems that maintain a democracy.
  2. Second, we need to make it harder for outside political groups to cooperate with inside political groups and organize disinformation attacks, through measures like transparency in political funding and spending. And finally,
  3. we need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.

Data Is a Toxic Asset

All this makes data a toxic asset, and it continues to be toxic as long as it sits in a company’s computers and networks. The data is vulnerable, and the company is vulnerable. It’s vulnerable to hackers and governments. It’s vulnerable to employee error. And when there’s a toxic data spill, millions of people can be affected. The 2015 Anthem Health data breach affected 80 million people. The 2013 Target Corp. breach affected 110 million.

.. If data is toxic, why do organizations save it?

There are three reasons. The first is that we’re in the middle of the hype cycle of big data. Companies and governments are still punch-drunk on data, and have believed the wildest of promises on how valuable that data is. The research showing that more data isn’t necessarily better, and that there are serious diminishing returns when adding additional data to processes like personalized advertising, is just starting to come out.

The second is that many organizations are still downplaying the risks. Some simply don’t realize just how damaging a data breach would be. Some believe they can completely protect themselves against a data breach, or at least that their legal and public relations teams can minimize the damage if they fail. And while there’s certainly a lot that companies can do technically to better secure the data they hold about all of us, there’s no better security than deleting the data.

The last reason is that some organizations understand both the first two reasons and are saving the data anyway. The culture of venture-capital-funded start-up companies is one of extreme risk taking. These are companies that are always running out of money, that always know their impending death date.

.. We can be smarter than this. We need to regulate what corporations can do with our data at every stage: collection, storage, use, resale and disposal. We can make corporate executives personally liable so they know there’s a downside to taking chances. We can make the business models that involve massively surveilling people the less compelling ones, simply by making certain business practices illegal.