Enemies Of The State

Columnist Matt Armitage mulls over the future role of artificial intelligences in our voting processes.

BY Matt Armitage | Aug 6, 2016 | Opinion



Hi. My name is Matt and I am the first of my kind. A shadow elite, a political djin with the power to shape the world from a screen. I am macro and I am micro. I can crash world markets, divert a Predator drone to attack you or crash your car into a wall at 150kmh. One thing is no more difficult than the other. And no less rewarding. I am a virus. I am everywhere. And I am your future.

Yes, I know. I’m rehashing the plot for Live Free or Die Hard with an extra shot of existential melodrama. But, as in Will Smith’s Enemy of the State, fiction is often prescient. The last few weeks have seen Donald Trump, Republican nominee for the 2016 Presidential campaign invite what are believed to be state-acting Russian hackers to attack the email servers of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. It’s incredible that a US political candidate would praise the enemy authors of a cyber-attack on US soil, but then Trump is incredible.

For his own part, Trump’s advisers dismissed the comment as a joke, but these self-same hackers had already published the trove of stolen emails on Wikileaks. Leaks that led to the resignation of Democratic National Congress chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the eve of the Democratic Convention that would anoint Clinton. It’s not a surprise that Russia would welcome a Trump Presidency. Trump’s policies of disengagement would roll back US forces and interventions in areas that are sensitive to the Great Bear. Trump’s unpredictability and incoherence acutely reflect the Putin regime’s favourite international export: chaos.

Social media is a politician’s wet dream. Trump and Clinton wage almost daily Twitter wars, though Clinton’s team seems a little more millennials-savvy. Outisde the US, numerous countries limit access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter as and when they feel political circumstances require. Those same social and search companies are fighting running battles with US intelligence and law enforcement agencies that want backdoor access to their user information.

At the same time, we voluntarily hand over reams of data about our daily lives to the most random of tech-companies. There was an uproar when the makers of Pokemon Go mistakenly requested access to users emails but there are plenty of apps that demand access to our social media profiles, cameras and location data and even the phone’s microphone. How long before intelligence agencies like the CIA or Russia’s FSB start funding the development of apps that track us, watch us and listen to what we say? Maybe you’ve already have one on your phone.

Certainly Google, Amazon and Samsung have had issues with software and hardware devices that listen to our conversations in an attempt to better ‘streamline’ search results to our preferences. Most of us don’t have the time or expertise to conduct detailed analysis of every single app we download. We just trust that Apple and Google have done their due diligence before adding them to an app store. In any case, once our information is uploaded to a cloud server, who would ever know where it went?

Of course, the Trump saga is ongoing. In early August he claimed that Democrats might try and steal the election; possibly to prepare his supporters for a rout at the polls in November. Certainly, with the world moving towards electronic balloting that possibility is getting closer. Unless it comes down to a handful of votes, paper ballots require widespread and far-reaching conspiracies to alter.

Electronic ballots, unless they boast NSA-level security, are surprisingly easy to tamper with. In 2015, the state of Virginia was forced to decommission thousands of voting machines. Flaws in their wireless technology would have allowed them to be easily hacked and their results controlled. Computers at heart, other legacy voting systems run on old operating systems that are no longer patched or supported by their manufacturers, making them vulnerable to all kinds of network incursion.

Just as worrying is the future role of artificial intelligences in the voting process. Ostensibly there to oversee the process, would an autonomous, self-aware machine be tempted to interfere in the process? It wouldn’t be bound by a human morality, it could simply make a binary decision that humans would be better off under the ‘rule’ of certain candidates and massage the votes so subtly and convincingly that proving fraud would be near impossible.

Still, it’s not all bad news. Whichever candidate wins the US Presidential this year, opponents could simply hack into the new President’s car, plane or helicopter and create an accident that brings that tenure to a quick and fiery end. It shouldn’t be that hard. There’s probably some code on the Dark Web, ready to cut and paste.