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Infosec 19: “Our rules are no longer fit for purpose,” says Jamie Bartlett

It’s 18:50 on 6 June 2029, you’ve just arrived home and you’re about to cook dinner. As you go to open the door of your smart fridge, a personalised political advert appears on the inbuilt screen.

Your fridge knows you’re hungry because you eat at the same time most days. Because your fridge knows, so too does the political party which sent you the advert. It has chosen this particular moment to surface a message about law and order as it suspects your raised hunger levels will make you angrier, and that anger will mean you’re more susceptible to its hard-line policies.

According to Jamie Bartlett, this is the future of political campaigning. It is the logical conclusion, the best-selling author told Infosecurity Europe in London on Wednesday, of the convergence of psychographic profiling and the internet of things: “I don’t think this sounds any stranger than if you’d tried to explain to people 20 years ago what [the 2016 presidential] campaign would look like.”

Whether Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy which entered administration amid a global privacy scandal last year, was responsible for the election of Donald Trump is irrelevant, says Bartlett. What’s important is that elections are fundamentally changing. “Elections are starting to become about subtle nudges and micro-targeting,” he said. “It’s not really about what elections are supposed to be about.”

If Hillary Clinton had won, Bartlett is sure that the Trump campaign would have accused her of cheating too. “The danger is that if we can’t create rules or systems or pieces of software that allow people to trust elections, people will stop [doing so].” Election law, Bartlett believes, is inherently unfit for the modern age. “They can’t monitor what people are sharing […] but it’s not beyond the wit of man to figure this out.”

The issue of electoral integrity, which Bartlett addresses in his book The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) plays into a broader issue, he argues, around laws and regulations failing to keep pace with technology. “The rules we’ve created don’t seem to function properly [any more],” he warned. 

One of the starkest illustrations of this is the dark net, a subject Bartlett has written about extensively. While a number of high-profile dark net sites have been shut down in recent years, the internet’s criminal underworld is becoming more decentralised, and harder to police as a result, according to the writer.

“There are a lot of good reasons why people use the dark net,” Bartlett said, noting the privacy it affords whistle-blowers. “But more and more people are going to dark net markets to find stolen data. It’s very, very easy to advertise and very easy to get because all you need is an encrypted email. The dark net markets are lowering the barriers of entry to simple, easy forms of cyber crime.”

The ultimate risk, said Bartlett, is that if regulators and experts fail to crack down on rogue technology, people will begin to turn against it. “I fear that people are going to start losing faith in technology because of these problems. […] The danger is people begin to distrust tech and start taking the law into their own hands.”

“The closer technology gets to peoples lives, the more important it is that it’s secure, [but] we can overcome this because we’ve overcome these problems before.”