Election hacking and the rise of cybercrime – Is there a solution that doesn’t compromise on personal privacy?

It is unavoidable, the astounding rise of social media combined with increasing amounts of fake news and the gradual decline of previously trustworthy national news publications has resulted in a melting pot of online anarchy.

In a recent event for Speakers in London, leading authority on cybercrime and global affairs, Misha Glenny presented a powerful keynote that outlined the strengthening relationship between cybercrime and industrial espionage. The evidence is far too compelling, and a clear correlation is emerging, as society reaches new heights in online technologies and communication, organised crime moulds and adapts, leaping to new unseen heights.

Since the Zuckerberg trial earlier this year it has become more and more apparent that the CEO’s of large online companies can no longer effectively control the impact their media platforms have on their audiences.

In essence, Facebook was designed with the intention of meeting members of the opposite sex and enhancing people social lives, it is doubtful that even Mark Zuckerberg himself could have predicted that it could grow into something powerful enough to influence elections but, that’s what has happened.

Social media ‘echo chambers’ is the latest vulnerability of social media to provide exploitable opportunities for cyber criminals with malicious intent. The design aim of many of these platforms is to provide social media users with content that appeals to them personally. The use of previous interests, likes, follows and browser history all help to create a picture puzzle that makes up an individual’s profile.

As a result, the content that is relayed to them on the website is directly related to views and issues the algorithm has already concluded they are more likely to enjoy and engage with. The more they engage with said content, the more they are shown, leading to a snowball effect. This reinforces values and can effectively ‘brainwash’ someone by only showing them increasingly opinionated posts.

This is one of the vulnerabilities, amongst others, that was used by Russian hackers to influence the U.S. Election. So prominent and consistent has this problem become that The New York Times has an entire news page dedicated solely to Russian hacking and said page is updated almost daily.

In the case of the U.S. election meddling, there were minimal cases of ‘hacking’ or a direct use of malicious strategies to seize control over digital assets as is normally the case with such instances. Instead, thousands of social media accounts were created and produced a steady stream of propaganda. This propaganda continually resonated amongst particular groups of targeted American audiences and misfed them information that was then spread across the web. This strategy of relaying false information was propelled and enhanced by social media echo chambers.

The result? According to the New York Times on September 20, President Trump authorised new classified orders for the Pentagon’s cyber elites to increase their numbers of offensive attacks against adversaries. Numerous investigations are being done into how online media platforms operate, which has also seen a huge wave of bans coming in for those who promote extreme views.

Individuals such as info wars Alex Jones have seen themselves banned across numerous platforms in an attempt to prevent the breeding of hateful prejudices and malicious discourse. While this seems to be one of but a few viable options, it is doubtful this will have any lasting impact, especially since of the accounts used to influence the election weren’t of individuals with a particularly strong online presence. Cracking down on a handful of the largest and most controversial account holders will only serve to create openings for new accounts to fill their places.

There are so many different case studies that you could examine or discuss that clearly demonstrate the rising prominence of cyber crime being used as a tool to conduct industrial espionage. You could talk about how to defend itself from their numerous enemies Israel heavily invested in cybersecurity and is now one of the leading countries in the industry. You could examine how Russia has hacked numerous American power outlets or how China and Iran are dramatically increasing their cyber arsenals but, that’s not the immediate issue.

The question isn’t if it’s happening or even how to prevent it, so much as how can a government protect its citizens and international interests without compromising on their personal privacy? At what point does the level of threat cross the intersection into territory that warrants a restriction on freedom under the pursuit of defending the public interest?

This is a question that has been hotly debated amongst journalism communities for decades but, the complicated laws of the worldwide web have only seemed to heighten and further complicate matters.

Misha Glenny states “The Internet has fashioned a new and complicated environment for an age-old dilemma that pits the demands of security against the desire for freedom.”

Should the state be allowed powers that shut down any accounts they believe to be acting suspiciously? If the UK government were to increase cybersecurity at the expense of its citizen’s privacy or constitutional freedoms, it would be interesting to see what the response would be like. While it is ultimately something that the UK public has been opposed to on a number of levels, perhaps the ever-growing threat of eastern cyber-attacks might swing national favour towards their own government invading their privacy, rather than that of another country.