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Cyber War: Ransomware, election bots and Artificial Intelligence

Written by PSI staff

Friday 21 October 2016 witnessed millions of internet users in the United States suffering hours of disrupted service coming at a time of rising threats and counter threats of international cyber wars. Sites attacked included Reddit, Twitter, Etsy, Github, Soundcloud, Spotify as well as the New York Times, Paypal, Pinterest and Tumblr, and some cable firms.

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Reuters was quick to report that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were both investigating. According to www.newsmax.com:

“The disruptions come at a time of unprecedented fears about the cyber threat in the United States, where hackers have breached political organizations and election agencies.

Homeland Security last week issued a warning about a powerful new approach for blocking access to websites – hackers infecting routers, printers, smart TVs and other connected devices with malware that turns them into “bot” armies that overwhelm website servers in distributed denial of service attacks. Dyn said it had resolved one attack, which disrupted operations for about two hours, but disclosed a second attack a few hours later that was causing further disruptions.”

As real-time social media technology comes of age as a weapon for political, as well as economic change, it is no wonder forces are at work to exploit it to the full. Gizmodo.com reported that ‘This Is Why Half the Internet Shut Down Today.’

A few weeks ago, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Wikileaks, founder Julian Assange appeared from the window of the Ecuadorian embassy in London (the place where he has spent the last five years in political asylum) to make a momentous live video broadcast.

In his announcement Assange explained that he intended to release email documents exposing US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in “batches” every week. He claimed the emails would not only be enough to indict her, but also show dirty tricks and collusion between the American mainstream media and Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton aimed at harming her Republican opponent for president, billionaire Donald Trump. Trump thereupon used Assange’s Wikileaks ammunition to call out Clinton as a “wicked woman” for her part in “rigging” the election.

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While pundits agree Clinton seems to have sway with the mainstream media (“the Russians did it!“) they also concede The Donald is savvy in exploiting social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc) and built over 16 million dedicated online followers. So, will Trump be successful in his gambit? Opinion polls offer mixed messages. But it was conspicuous that Trump found an ally across the Pond with UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage.

In Britain, Farage had gone from rank underdog to epoch-shaping victor with the Brexit vote. In Britain’s embittered national poll about ending European Union membership it was a powerful social media that was the ‘must have’ weapon on the political battlefield. This proved decisive at a time when mainstream media is seen as no longer reporting news stories objectively. Britain’s vote to leave the EU (Brexit) is seen as a landmark moment when so many politicians, journalists and pollsters failed to take into account the rise of a vast online alternative news gathering and reporting phenomenon.

Just as with the unspoken support felt in Britain for Brexit which shocked the experts, in America some analysts now anticipate a similar undercurrent of unaccounted voters for Trump. The BBC, which was badly exposed for wrongly predicting a defeat for the Brexiteers has been catching up on the technological shift.

In ‘Tech Tent – ransomware, election bots and AI‘ (BBC,  October 21, 2016) Rory Cellan-Jones reports that the biggest cybersecurity threat of the moment is “the use of bots in the fight to get the upper hand on social media during the US elections and the ongoing debate about the risks of artificial intelligence.”

Human hands aren’t likely to be thumbing many ballot papers come November 8th as mechanized ballot will be doing much of the counting. And so it is with Twitter where more bots are being applied to understand who is winning over voters. In fact, it seems expertise in running bots is becoming the tool of choice not only in social media campaigning but vote counting (or rigging?).

Cellan-Jones indicates that the kind of mass cyber attack that befall the US on Friday may well be repeated and that the principle weapon in the attackers’ armoury was now ransomware. “This is malicious software that first takes over your network, then encrypts all your files before demanding a ransom – usually in Bitcoin – to unlock them, ” says the BBC correspondent.

Computational Propaganda and Bots for Trump

In topical mode BBC Cellan-Jones interviews computational propaganda expert, Professor Philip Howard of Oxford University who uses the term to describe his research project. The professor has made a study of Twitter activity during the Presidential debates.

Professor Howard’s research – which has not yet been peer reviewed – appears to show that many more automated accounts are being used to tweet in support of Donald Trump than the bots backing Hillary Clinton. Professor Howard explains:

“During British election campaigns I get bombarded with reports from sentiment analysis firms, claiming they can mine Twitter to understand who is winning over voters. Those claims always seemed dubious – even more so, now that it appears that expertise in running bots is becoming the prime weapon in social media campaigning.”

At a period when new advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) seem to be reported every day, the ethical issues surrounding its impact on our lives are rising up the agenda.

Last week saw the opening of an AI think tank, the Centre for the Future of Intelligence, in Cambridge with Prof Stephen Hawking renewing his warnings that the technology could bring extraordinary benefits to mankind – but could also spell the end for us.

Cellan-Jones adds that last Thursday night he took part in a Cambridge Union debate opposing the motion: “This House fears the rise of artificial intelligence”. “I’m afraid to report that our side lost – and fear won – though all the speakers agreed we needed a more nuanced view of AI, ” Cellan-Jones laments.

Meanwhile, after a day of many questions, Wikileaks seemed to shine a little more light on Friday’s cyber attack on America when Twitter ran the following:

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Read more at twitter.com/wikileaks