Cybersecurity of our Brains

“Fake News” is a red herring.

The digital revolution has produced something more pernicious that is tearing at the very fabric of our society.

In only 11 years it has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other as well as with brands. It has shifted the balance of power heavily towards individual users, who now have unprecedented powers of influence. It has changed the very concept of a product, with instant gratification now expected for everything we purchase. It has given rise to the “Shared Economy”, jumbling the relationship between employer and employee. And it has introduced the “Attention Economy”, where persuasive techniques are actively used to get us returning to our screens in order to monetise our attention. All of which is raising new, hitherto unheard of questions around ethics, privacy and trade.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, we have never been more connected in the history of mankind — but ironically we have never been more polarised as a society, living in silos, echo chambers of conformity. We have lost the art of critical thinking, becoming very easily influenceable by an invisible “big brother”, whether in politics as can be evidenced in the 2016 US election, Brexit, Brazil, Myanmar, or in business (Amazon is capable of sending you the product before you order it).

It wasn’t meant to be that way. Technology was supposed to connect us, to open the world to us. What happened?

To try to understand, let us take a step back.

Digital Technology is unique in 3 respects:

  • It is a solution searching for a problem.
    • We develop speech recognition and then ask ourselves what this could be used for.
  • It is insidious and morphs into something not by design.
    • Twitter was designed to tell your friends what you had for breakfast, not for the stream of consciousness of a US President.
  • It brought about a period of exponential change.
    • The very first ever web site came in 1991. In only 27 years half the population on Earth is online, a little less than 4 billion users. Compare this to Radio that took 38 years to reach 50 million users.

And then came 2007

It was the perfect storm, a watershed moment that saw the introduction of the iPhone, the Kindle, Android, Twitter and Facebook (opening up to the general public late 2006). From the hardware side, 3G networks became abundant, and Location Based Services emerged. It was the end of the “Dial Up” connection, and the start of being “Always Connected”. From there it was a small step to becoming “Always Trackable”, which had far-reaching — albeit unintended — consequences.

By leaving behind breadcrumbs, both online and offline, we helped amass a huge trove of private data that has made it possible not only to predict our behaviour but also to infer our personality. We became “Always Predictable”. Amazon is testing a system that will actually ship a product before you even order it. But it is one thing to be offered products based on our past purchase patterns, and a radically different story when we are passed messages that are based upon our personality (and vulnerability) at any given moment in time.

It turns out that only a few Facebook likes are enough to infer our race, gender, sexual orientation, and political leaning. Imagine what you can do with 500. Our five big personality traits can be extrapolated with an 80% accuracy through click patterns alone. Experiments have shown there’s a huge increase in user engagement when ads are tailored to personality traits (such as extraversion, openness, conscientiousness…). “Dance like no-one’s watching – but they totally are”, says an ad targetting extroverts. “Beauty doesn’t have to shout” says the ad for introverts.

Imagine what you can do with political messages.

Always Manipulable

So we just entered the “Always Manipulable” phase. You think you have “free will”? Think again. Seventy percent of Youtube videos watched come from “Recommendations”. Why? So we can remain on Youtube. Remember that we are not customers of Youtube or Facebook or Google; the advertisers are. And the product being sold? Our attention. Persuasive (read “addictive”) techniques are actively used to get us returning to our screens so that our attention can be monetised.

So what comes after the video you just watched? If you watch a video on dieting, there’s a good chance a video on anorexia comes next or soon after. If you watch a video on climate control, you’ll be prompted to watch a video from a climate denier. Sensationalist news always has better engagement. And if you watch a video on 9/11, a video from Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist could well come next. If 9/11 conspiracy theories are horrible in English, how are they in other languages? And who’s looking at them? Is it any surprise that radicalisation takes place online?

We are spiralling into our own echo chambers, where Fake News first made their appearance. No illegal hacking was required to manipulate us. We have seen the influence of social media not only on the US 2016 elections and Brexit, but also on the Brazilian elections (through Whatsapp) and the way the Myanmar regime used Facebook to stoke hatred against the Rohingyas.

So if democracy is predicated on the exercise of free will and the exposure to eclectic views, what does that say about the state of our democracy today?

Nevertheless the potential for good is huge. Digital technology has given an important voice to the “long tail population”, the civil society, giving it a collective power that can topple governments (eg Arab Spring). More recently it has helped launch the “Gilets Jaunes” movement that has made the French government stop, listen and react. It can hold the powerful to account, as in the #metoo movement. And in a moment of sublime irony, Google employees used Google tools to organise a protest walkout across the globe, followed by 20,000 employees.

What next?

So how do we harness digital technology — before it harnesses us? It starts with us, individuals. We need to understand there is no free lunch — nor free application — and our private data is ours. We need to improve our digital fluency and understand what we are signing as Terms and Conditions. When we look at a new product, let us also look at its business model. Let us ask ourselves who is the customer in this relationship? This does not mean stopping all social media activity, but rather to understand the costs and take an informed decision whether it is a price worth paying. Let’s not sacrifice our freedom on the altar of convenience.

Governments also have a big role to play. We need digital savvy political leaders who are comfortable with technology and are able to look into the crystal ball to solve tomorrow’s problems. We need legislation that moves from a reactive mode to a proactive one, creating the space to innovate and preparing society to make the transition. We need an overhaul of our education system (basically unchanged since the Industrial Revolution) to leverage the new capabilities of digital, as well as to rethink the curriculum, preparing our children to be full digital citizens of tomorrow. We need governments to hold big monopolies to account and regulate when needed. For they will never autoregulate.

Some 10 years ago digital technology had radically changed our landscape. With the advent of even more technological advances (AI, Biotech, blockchain…), ten years from now our worlds will once again not be recognisable.

Let us make sure it’s a future we want to live in.


First appeared in Geneva Centre for Security Policy under the title, “The Digitisation of Politics” https://www.gcsp.ch/News-Knowledge/Global-insight/The-Digitisation-of-Democracy

One thought on “Cybersecurity of our Brains

Add yours

  1. Excellent article and well written, connecting the past to the present realities and future trends. Let us hope that digital technologies bring a positive behavioral change among humans, for the betterment of social welfare.

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