How to Hack the Planet

Authoritarianism and inequality are a greater threat to security than any line of code.

There was data breach the other week. This time, the Twitter accounts of famous celebrities like Elon Musk and Bill Gates fell victim to hackers asking followers to send bitcoin and double their money. Three men have since been arrested in connection with the attack and, after initial suspicion, it has been confirmed they had help. In this instance, they targeted employees with email scams in order to get their credentials. Fairly rudimentary stuff.

But help comes in many forms.

While the public panics about losing control of their social media accounts or having their personal details exposed and companies worry about securing their code and their employees – over a thousand of whom had access to the account tools necessary – the looming problem it flags up gets largely ignored.

In the 21st century, digital security is human security.

Virtually every single person on the planet leaves a data trail. From purchasing preferences, to facial recognition and location tracking.

In terms of internet use alone, it is estimated that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is generated every day. In 2020, this is expected to account for 1.7 megabytes per person, per second. Our personal lives are online and open, if not for all to see, then at the very least for some.

This means that all our vulnerabilities are also out there. Readily available to be toyed with. It’s easy to imagine what this looks like in some cases. We know the spectre of the solitary hacker or shadowy government agency from films and television. We’ve heard of how ‘big data’ is harvested, traded and used as a targeting tool by advertisers, political campaigns and countless others. We’ve even accepted the fact that states and private entities attempt to manipulate elections and entire populations through disinformation and fake accounts. It’s hard to qualify just how much of a risk these realities present. Yet they only scratch the surface.

‘Social engineering’ and the weaponization of the personal against the person, has been a tool in the back pocket of conmen, gangsters, spies and tyrants since time immemorial. From a wooden horse that played on the emotions of the Trojans, to European empires breaking bread and then sacking entire continents. The Old Testament even tells of a snake that pitted Adam and Eve against their God.

Knowing who you are, where you are, what you want and what you fear is more powerful than any weapon. It offers not just conquest, but control.

In 2020, this knowledge and the manipulative practice that goes with it, has never been more pervasive. Far more insidious than the ‘back-end’ problem of technological sophistication, is that those who wish to manipulate current or future affairs, probably already have what they need. And in this scenario, the lone wolf hacker is nothing next to the power of data hoarding corporations and governments.

Everyone has something they’re a little sensitive about. A soft spot. In most cases it’s not even a huge deal, but that doesn’t mean we want everyone knowing about it. New media has created a spectator sport out of even the most mundane of human activity – exposing us to each other and making every little fault and folly subject to scrutiny. This means our ‘private’ lives can be used against us. But embarrassment alone carries little weight. Despite complaints about political correctness and the power of the mob, most of the frustrations of a cavernous public sphere filled with 7 billion opinions, are just that. Frustrations. Part of adapting to a wider noisier reality.

Exposure to the crowd has even helped affect positive change, by revealing solidarity in the Arab Spring or beginning a process of reconciliation with the lived realities of those previously unheard or unseen through #metoo and #blacklivesmatter.

There are instances where the masses on the internet have legitimately targeted the innocent, such as when reddit users falsely accused Sunil Tripathi of the Boston Marathon bombing, while his family grieved. But this power is dwarfed by those with both all the information and the capacity to leverage it at any moment.

Governments already, by definition, control what is and is not legal. Much of this is fairly non-controversial – debates on punishment notwithstanding. But overzealous and authoritarian legislation against everything from drug use to free speech often serve to criminalize the ordinary in the interest of actual villainy, providing power through fear.

The habitual gathering of volumes of personal data on populations both domestically and internationally grants a significant strategic advantage, that we are yet to fully appreciate.

In the days following 9/11, the US government authorized the most sweeping powers of surveillance the nation had ever seen. Powers that are still in place to this day.
In the last couple of years, China has begun implementing a social credit system that leans on truly immense systems of data gathering to dictate what the population can and cannot do. While the UK, Germany and Japan round out the top 5 in terms of most CCTV cameras per capita in the world.

There is a certain point where code becomes practically irrelevant to software security as well.

In 2018, the Australian government passed an amendment to the Telecommunications Act that allowed for security services to compel employees of telecom providers and tech companies to provide backdoor access under threat of fine or even imprisonment.

At first glance, this stuff stops at the relevant borders, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Western powers have security arrangements such as the ‘Five Eyes’ agreement – an intelligence sharing agreement between Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA – which provides convenient legislative loopholes for cross border compulsion. While China’s attempts at coercing its own population into quiet obedience appear to be just a test run, with numerous instances of spyware found in everything from TIk Tok to tax software and ominous warnings issued through embassies in response to any stand against CCP policy. There is nothing to stop this information being leveraged on foreign populations.

Active manipulation of public opinion and sentiment through social media campaigns by political actors is increasing globally – seemingly becoming standard practice. Meanwhile there seems to be a pivot in many of the world’s intelligence agencies away from controlling a singular narrative and towards chaos profiteering.

Fostering fear, distrust and confusion is a powerful tool. And it’s not hard.

But while data is a risk, it is also vital. It helps us understand everything from population movements to social trends. Where to build a bridge and how to fight a pandemic.

The problem is not the data, but rather the coercive power it takes on when held in the hands of the already powerful.

Where we most need the transparency offered by data is in exposing the crimes of the powerful and the inner workings of our institutions. Perhaps even more. Though our reactions to that exposure, just like our reactions to each other, are critically important.

In some ways, transparency, whistle blowing and even personal admissions of guilt may be disincentivised by the destruction of any and all roads to redemption in the increasingly public sphere. The rot at the heart of governments, corporations and other organizations, like gangs, becomes a lifeline.

If we are to start voluntarily baring all, the practice of transparency needs to come from the top, with an appetite for truth before, though not to the exclusion of, justice.

There are also strong arguments for privacy. Both individual and collective. There are secrets, outside the mundane, that need to be kept. Things we alone have a right to. Our thoughts. Our opinions. Our safety. Secret ballots, private conversations and confidential information can all, under certain circumstances, keep things free of undue influence. They help make democracy and free society tick.

However, there is also a cost to keeping everything under metaphorical lock and key. Metaphors don’t belong to you. You’re just a ‘user’.

It is not without irony that we live in an age of greater apparent security, with more personal accounts, privacy policies, locks and passwords than ever before and yet far more avenues of exposure. That exposure is liable to be weaponized against us in the coming decades by creeping authoritarianism and a billion laser guided e-missiles, targeting individuals and groups at a distance with ease.

Yet data alone is not our only vulnerability. With spiraling inequality and a global pandemic meeting or even precipitating an increase in automation, perhaps an even greater threat to our security is an increasingly precarious economic and even social situation.

And if there’s one thing that causes more fear than the looming manipulative threat of state violence, it’s the daily agony of navigating economic precarity.

Much like the more data driven forms of social engineering, precarity is an effective tool. Utilized in some capacity to sustain virtually every regime in history. Whether you’re a Roman Emperor or an Amazon CEO, equality is a threat to power.

The provision of ‘just enough’ to ‘just enough’ forms an indentured consuming bulwark against violent revolution whilst allowing senators and shareholders to go about their business.

But a world teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and depression is a world desperately vulnerable to manipulation. With hundreds of millions living in poverty, irrespective of employment, it is also our present global reality.

A failure to provide people with a reliable, livable and ultimately enjoyable income, at minimum, besides being a moral failing, is an open door to cancerous corruption and insecurity. Wages are lagging drastically behind, despite the fact that profits and productivity continue to go up. The wealth of billionaires continues to skyrocket amidst staggering unemployment. And while some seem willing to move past the whole predicament and rush back to work, that reality might not be so much better.

In the middle of a pandemic, even being in a workplace is a threat, let alone being underpaid and overworked.

The fact that many full time employees of the worlds staggeringly wealthy tech companies still struggle to pay the bills amidst absurd living expenses, represents a greater security threat than any line of code.

And yet those are still, by broader standards, good, well-paying jobs. The rest of the world should be so lucky.

Entrenched moralizations on the ethics of work and the framing of even contemporary debates betray a sort of deference, even subservience to economic authority. Not to mention an intensely cynical view of human nature and motivation. We need money to live. We need work for money. We pray that we may be granted the privilege to labor in order to sustain our capacity to labor.

This line of reasoning might play well in the minds of CEOs and other benefactors the world over, who see there is something to gain by holding people against the ropes. But if it does, then it betrays their own ignorance and lack of imagination.

An employee who can’t pay their rent and lives in fear is someone who might underperform or take their knowledge elsewhere in a best case scenario. In other scenarios, they might decide to sell secrets or simply burn the whole system down. Whereas a ‘person’ with economic liberty might learn something, invent something or even start a business.

However even these hypotheticals deal with past and present reality. The one we are moving into is one where economic insecurities, like all the others, are global. Governments and corporations alike have manufactured an environment of profound vulnerability and dependence, often amongst the very people they serve. Perhaps they imagined that they alone would benefit. Yet it is increasingly apparent that insecurity anywhere is insecurity everywhere.

Inexorably tied to economic insecurity, our place in the world both socially and geographically, is under threat, if not by income, then by the impending threat of conflict and most notably, climate change. The ribbon that ultimately ties our precarious future together.

Failures by governments and corporations alike to address global challenges provide backdoors into their own interests.

There is a profound short sightedness in the lackadaisical attitude towards events that could displace hundreds of millions and topple entire nations, which indicates a disparity not just in economic exposure, but perceived threat. The leadership of the world knows they’ll be fine. Everyone else is not so sure.

But while the latter is right to be concerned, the former is dead wrong not to be. There are no avoiding global threats. A bunker on a farm in New Zealand is unlikely to provide much security against a world driven mad by loss. If anything it will only make you a target.

Some of the phenomenally wealthy and powerful even seem to appreciate this. And Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, is out in front, recently donating 3 million dollars to trial a Universal Basic Income.

Perhaps he sees the vulnerability. There is also no shortage of state and billionaire funded projects to address climate change. At least they see which way the wind is blowing.

Meanwhile radical individual transparency may be a publicly driven solution that could gut some of that coercive data-driven power from corrupt authoritarian elements of our society. We could simply choose to be ok with being exposed, acknowledge that we’re all a bit weird and toss aside any delusions of privacy.

But it’s not enough. Not nearly. And it does nothing to affect the balance of power. People still live in fear, of their governments, of a loss of income, of welfare, of life and livelihood.

What happened at Twitter, turned out to be the work of individuals just out to cause a fuss and make a buck. But it doesn’t matter. There is very little to stop a larger party from adopting the same techniques at scale and with purpose.

Those growing up or merely existing in today’s world, from the casual employee to the aspiring leader, are primed and ready to be taken advantage of. Any entity that may want to influence the outcome of events, in a community or on the global stage, need only target the right people and push the right buttons, threatening unemployment, imprisonment, social or physical displacement and any number of other forms of modern day oblivion.

All the help they could ever need, is already there. Our information and the power to use it. Our welfare and the power to abuse it. Desperation, data and unlimited leverage.

It is for this reason that authoritarianism and inequality pose a greater threat to security than any line of code. In order to stop someone from ‘hacking’ the planet and seizing control of our future – those are the bugs we need to patch.

This is a guest commentary curated by The Investigative Journal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Investigative Journal and its staff.
Daniel Mackisack
Daniel Mackisack

Daniel Mackisack is a sociologist, social entrepreneur and activist, with a career stretching from IT to refugee assistance and formal diplomacy. He has worked with the World Bank, the UK and NZ governments and numerous non-profits, in addition to sitting on the board of the British New Zealand Business Association. As a fellow he assisted research into the negative impact of trade organizations on developing countries and spent 4 years in the Arab Spring studying social connections and political change. He now leads workshops on collaborative decision making, is co-founder of media transparency startup 'Write In Stone', a committed sci-fi nerd and a belligerent optimist.

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