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Technology in Politics?

By Christopher Burgess

The 2016 U.S. presidential election demonstrated the power of data, information and analysis in a number of ways. There is no disputing, the Russian Federation’s efforts to manipulate the social network engagement surrounding the election was multifaceted and all encompassing.

And while this meddling is reprehensible, it isn’t going to go away just because it was detected, and indeed, the efforts of the Russians showed how a government or any interested party can manipulate the artificial intelligence (AI) used in various social networks (Facebook and Twitter) to ensure the desired verbiage is presented to the right audience at the right time.

In other words, the Russians figured out how the algorithms and advertising platforms worked (just like you or I can) and then used them.

Machine Learning

Let’s step back a bit. Technology jumped into the mix with respect to the candidates themselves in 2012. In 2012, we saw President Obama smoke candidate Romney in the social network milieu. One understood how to get the message out across digital media and the other, frankly, ignored the medium.

Now fast forward to the election a year ago, November 2016, and we saw the power of machine learning exercised by candidate, now President, Trump. His election campaign was tantamount to a product launch using social network engagement as the means to generate interest and to ultimately close the sale.

The Independent (UK) argues that artificial intelligence altered democracy. They specifically called out the capability demonstrated by Trump: the power of AI and machine learning. They make the case that artificial intelligence can be used to manipulate individual voters. “During the 2016 US presidential election, the data science firm Cambridge Analytica rolled out an extensive advertising campaign to target persuadable voters based on their individual psychology.”

The use of psychometrics has been around a long time, since 1879. It is effectively used in a plethora of marketing campaigns to include cereal manufacturers, automakers, and many other consumer goods providers. The marketing world is familiar with the need to measure the fidelity of psychological measurements.  

Trump’s team’s ability to crunch data made it possible to target messages with pinpoint accuracy to those locales within key electoral districts in order to win the electoral election. While many may be unhappy with the continued use of the Electoral College, data scientists watching the exercise had to be impressed with the manner in which the raw data was made to sing and how the Cambridge Analytic team applied their analytic results.

In a well-articulated essay, “Can AI be used to run political systems,” Bove Beardsley, writing in Dataconomy, posits that the sky is the limit with respect of how AI will be used in future elections. Beardsley notes that current use centers around algorithms which are designed to “profile and target certain voters based on their internet (or poll) activity.”

He concludes, “it will be interesting to see how they (political parties) integrate AI into their operations and just how big a role they give to AI.”

Which leads us to the next use of technology in politics, liquid democracy.

Liquid Democracy

Recently a candidate for local office in Boulder, Colorado pledged to vote on each issue in the way the majority of his constituents desired. This pledge, reasonable by any measure, has long been made by every elected official since time immemorial. What makes the pledge from this candidate different, he intends to use an app to collect his constituent’s thoughts and perspectives on the issues upon which the candidate will vote.

The app of his choice is Parti.Vote (registration wall) which calls itself a liquid democracy platform for municipal governance. This may be the way elected officials move closer and engage more directly with their constituents going forward.

Slate noted how the 2016 data from the “American Community Survey"pegged 83.5 percent of Boulder’s population as having smartphones, which is also saying 16.5 percent may not be heard unless all methodologies are included (and the candidate to his credit acknowledged this).

Additionally, Slate says what we all are thinking, “security of any political app is critically important.” The website of this app does not use SSL, nor offers anything in the way of privacy policies, terms of service, security of application, etc.

Other identified apps are proposing using “blockchain technology to create liquid democracy.”

These include Sovereign app which was developed by Democracy Earth and is looking at using anonymity within blockchains to assure the secrecy and sanctity of the voter’s desired position on a topic. According to Democracy Earth, a number of South American political groups have expressed interest in their app.

While in Australia, a new party has been created, Flux, which takes liquid democracy to a new level, in their attempt to make politicians as we know them today obsolete. The Flux political party put up 13 candidates for the 2017 Senate election, and while the party did not seat any of their candidates, they did garner more than 12,000 votes in New South Wales, trailing the Australian Sex Party and Seniors United Party of Australia among others who also garnered thousands of votes but no seats.

Flux is not deterred; they continue to push for party membership (6692 registered members as of 1st November 2017) of likeminded Australians looking to “empower people in government decisions directly through technology.” It would appear to be transparent, as all party votes are public, “so if someone were to try and vote twice, it would be immediately obvious.”

Data Controlled Society

In a recent Scientific American piece on big data, artificial intelligence and democracy, they singled out Singapore and China as two countries which have a  “data-controlled society.” Singapore began a program to protect the city-state from the threat of terrorism and this work evolved to where it “ended up influencing economic and immigration policy, the property market and school curricula.”

China, often criticized for not allowing their citizens to be themselves, has evolved a “Citizen Score.” The Citizen Score came to be from the China Brain Project which was created by Baidu with People’s Liberation Army participation.

Deep learning algorithms were created leveraging search engine activities. It is anticipated the “Citizen Score” will be used to “determine under what conditions they may get loans, jobs, or travel visas to other countries.” One can easily see how the vote or non-vote of a citizen may influence their “Citizen Score.”

The piece concludes with “we are at a crossroads. Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are now shaping our society -- for better or worse.” The piece then goes forward with identifying ten fundamental areas needing attention to insure society benefits from this digital revolution:

1. to increasingly decentralize the function of information systems;

2. to support informational self-determination and participation;

3. to improve transparency in order to achieve greater trust;

4. to reduce the distortion and pollution of information;

5. to enable user-controlled information filters;

6. to support social and economic diversity;

7. to improve interoperability and collaborative opportunities;

8. to create digital assistants and coordination tools;

9. to support collective intelligence, and

10. to promote responsible behavior of citizens in the digital world through digital literacy and enlightenment.

Artificial Intelligence

A more positive direction than articulated by William Carter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in his piece, “Fear, Democracy and the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” Carter, leveraging Pew Research Center results which revealed “the majority of Americans are more afraid of the transformative potential of AI than excited about it,” sets the table of how disruptive technologies make people nervous.

He makes the case that embracing AI in our daily lives, work and culture are a plus, but the US elected officials won’t be pushing through advances in legislature and thought leadership if 85 percent of the constituents are against these efforts.

Carter posits, “Fear of AI is the biggest risk to the future. Shedding light on the benefits of AI, showing voters its potential and managing the risks of this transformative technology” will put the US in a position to ensure all reap the benefits of the technology. 

I agree.

About Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).

The opinions expressed in guest author articles are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Cylance.

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