With the recent revelation that Russia may be still trying to influence U.S. elections, and Facebook announcing that there are ongoing attempts to target its users with “fake news” using fake accounts, it is clear that this ongoing social manipulation is not going away any time soon. Facebook sold our not only our privacy but also our electoral future in order to enrich themselves. The impact of these indiscretions have materialized in weaker user and advertising growth. and the market has consequently punished the stock in the largest selloff in corporate history. That is not the focus of this article, but rather how these data breaches can potentially affect us for quite some time, and how blockchain can address some of these issues with regard to social media, potentially blunting the negative impact of the misuse of the data.
Big data and analytics is incredibly powerful
As a quick introduction as to why I have these concerns, I was one of the founders of a fintech data analytics firm that served hedge funds with insights gathered from large, aggregated data sets. For example, in the auto space the firm scraped websites, aggregated DMV data and other information in order to provide almost real time insights into the public companies involved with selling, financing, and servicing vehicles. In some cases, the data was so accurate, we effectively had the daily sales and with a very high degree of accuracy knew what public companies were going to report on earnings calls along with the credit profiles of their customers, changes in sales trends, and where the future guidance may be headed. This was clearly a highly valuable service for the hedge funds buying the information. This was only one example, there are many industries where the same methodology could be, and has been, applied in a similar fashion.
The massive data breaches from Facebook and others opened the door
This gets us to Facebook, and how the personal information extracted from the platform, along with other data sets from hacks and intrusions, can be used to influence ongoing elections. Unfortunately, this damage cannot be easily undone and the fallout could haunt us for quite some time. If you look at the hack attempts that were done during the last election, it was not necessarily and attempt to hack voting machines to change votes, but rather a massive download of voter registry data, personal data, and other information on the voters themselves. This is something far more sinister. This is not an attempt to rig just one election by altering some votes, but rather influence every election going forward. Adding in the massive data breaches from Exactis, Equifax, multiple retailers, and other service providers there is a treasure trove of hyper specific data available on the U.S. electorate. Using the power of big data analytics, this combined data set will be valid for a long time to come, and we will face the repercussions from it for the foreseeable future.
Every key piece of data about you has been stolen and weaponized
Every bit of data about you is for sale via traditional marketing databases and the hacked data sets. This includes address, email, home phone, cell phone, passwords, names and ages of your children, social security numbers, where you work, what you like to buy, possible political affiliations, religion, your income, shows and music you like, and the list goes on to give a very complete picture of the vast majority of the U.S. population. When combined, the data set on almost every individual is extensive, complete and frightening. In unfriendly hands, it is powerful and dangerous. It doesn’t need to be limited to large countries or organizations, the data can be weaponized even by smaller organizations with limited budgets and modest technical skills.
“Fake news” and the microtargeting of the electorate
Combining this with the plague of “fake news” and fake profiles, this data can be effectively used to influence voters, with the ultimate goal of manipulating the ultimate outcomes of elections. With the granularity of the data already in the wild, it potentially allows for unfriendly state actors to micro target elections. Meaning, not only who gets elected President or to Congress, but even down to the level of town boards, school elections, and other local politics. The influence framework can be so targeted as to build from the local levels all the way up to the highest offices. While politicians have used data to influence elections for centuries it is only recently that we have become aware of outside actors attempting to use that data, on both the right and the left, to drive voter sentiment through pushing hysteria and “fake news.”
Pandora’s box has been opened, how can blockchain help contain it now?
I am involved in the blockchain ecosystem, and it struck me that the underlying technologies could be used to mitigate some of the damage that has already been done, and reduce the impact going forward. Can we use blockchain as a sort of decentralized certificate authority to verify legitimate news sources and user profiles? Can concepts such as zero-knowledge proof (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-knowledge_proof) be used for this authentication without having to reveal the underlying data, preserving personal information and anonymity where required? Can similar systems and concepts be used to verify advertisers? How else can social media and news organizations and individual users utilize blockchain to safeguard privacy, enhance trust and accuracy? Can blockchain ultimately improve the experience for all stakeholders?
This is the introductory article, I would love to hear you thoughts and how your companies have harnessed blockchain in this area in a series of subsequent articles. Please email if you would like to contribute to the conversation with ideas, companies, and areas of expertise and we will delve deeper into these topics going forward.