Fake news, data privacy and General Elections

Fake news, data privacy and General Elections

Al-Jazeera confirms 'systematic and continual' cyber-attacks on all systems

There is currently some bad blood between the Qataris and the Arabs.

Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar is supposed to have said that Israel’s relationship with Qatar was ‘good’, that “there is no wisdom in harbouring hostility towards Iran” and also that he didn’t think that Donald Trump would remain President of the US for very long.

The Qatari Emir had just had a seemingly cordial meeting with Donald Trump in Riyadh and so the outburst appeared out of nowhere.

This was obviously all fake news.

Hackers had actually taken over the Twitter account of the military academy where he was supposed to have had a rant and posted fictitious tweets attributed to him.

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Included in the bunch of tweets was one purportedly from Qatar’s foreign minister asking for the other Gulf nations’ ambassadors to be removed from the country within 24 hours. Qatar quickly got the situation under control and also dismissed all claims made within the tweets.

But the damage was already done. First to fall was Qatar’s Al Jazeera broadcaster. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi blocked transmissions from them as well as lock access to its website.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have always played big brother in the region and bad blood between them can adversely affect and influence other Middle Eastern countries like Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

While Doha did release a press statement saying that the Qatar News Agency website was hacked by an “unknown entity” and an investigation is indeed underway, it might take some time before the situation is back to normal.

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This is the latest in a string of attacks on governments and government organisations that seem to have been designed to cause maximum unrest and tamper with the geopolitics of different regions, whether they are in the middle east, in Europe or Asia.

It all started with UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016 and has now resulted with the ICO opening an investigation into the use of data analysis in elections. On the face of it, it might not seem very similar to the case of hackers breaking into the twitter account of a military college in Qatar, but at the end of the day, they are both examples of hacking.

While the case in Qatar is very straight forward, deep dive data analysis of social media interactions has quietly been gathering momentum. Indeed, both the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election campaign used the same analytics company that has the knowhow to predict everything about a potential voter’s gender, temperament, religion and voting tendencies with great accuracy. Cambridge Analytica was behind both the landslide wins. With two of the most incorrectly called democratic processes in history, Big Data and analysis were the sole reason.

In fact, Big Data is all the more important as the most potent hacking tool because it has now emerged that apart from breaking into the emails of a Hillary Clinton aide, 2.5GB worth of voter-turnout analysis was sent through by the hacker to a Republican political operative in Florida.

Before this, Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was able to deflect hackers to made up content because they, perhaps, knew the danger that lurked. Political parties in the UK have been warned about getting their databases and emails hacked into.

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It also brings us to the rather touchy topic of fake news. How much does it affect who we vote for on May 8th? It doesn’t matter a great deal by itself but add it to a heavy dose of social media profiling, cookie placement and all other data that you can possibly have ever given to any organisation, it can end up making a lot of difference.

Ciaran Martin, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) recently offered cyber security assistance to political parties along with practical advice on risk mitigation. “…the NCSC is prioritising work to help improve cyber security in the key organisations potentially facing risks in this area. Events in the United States, Germany and elsewhere, act as a reminder of the potential for hostile action against the UK political system.

“The seminars will provide an overview of threats, case studies on recent cyber incidents, practical steps to reduce the risk, and advice on incident management. Protecting the UK’s political system from hostile cyber activity is one of the NCSC’s operational priorities and political parties have been directed to existing guidance on the NCSC website.

“The NCSC offer to help political parties is not just about the network security of political party systems. Attacks against the UK’s democratic processes go beyond this and can include attacks on Parliament, constituency offices, think tanks and pressure groups, and individuals’ email accounts. It is for this reason that the NCSC adopts a comprehensive approach to addressing cyber threats and managing risk.”

And none of us are safe from it. Not political parties, not media organisations and definitely not government sites. And I won’t even speculate about regular citizens and how every time they click the ‘like’ button on a tweet or Facebook post, somewhere on the cloud it gets logged.

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Whether it is other countries waging wars against democracy or massive media corporations tweaking who sees what not just on social media but also everywhere on the internet, the threat from big data is clear and present.

However, as it became obvious during the ‘Battle for No. 10’ program on Sky News when both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May fielded questions from the public- the government have noticed and trying their best to tackle the problem.

When a police officer asked May about the reduction in numbers of bobbies on the beat, she said that there had been a ‘shift of investment had to move from bobbies on the beat to cybersecurity’ as well as protecting  counter-terrorism funding.

What can regular citizens do at the moment? Nothing much really, apart rom take every new revelation about a political party, a candidate or someone in a public position with a hearty pinch of salt. Also research and try to read different versions of the same story from different publications. Only then, amongst all the smoke and mirrors, will the gossamer fine web of truth be visible.

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Copyright Lyonsdown Limited 2021

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