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Briefing Overview

Title: Hacking the Political Order 2.0
Author: Ian Kearns
Approx. Reading Time: 4 minutes

Briefing

Hacking the Political Order 2.0

For some time now, the debate over the digital disruption of politics has focused on two developments: the ability of ‘dark money’ and disinformation campaigns to swing elections on one hand and the potential implications of a world of pervasive encryption use on the other. The concern with the former has been most obviously powered by accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. The focus on the latter, a product of tension between intelligence agencies’ desire to use intercepted communications to protect national security and the concern of civil liberties and political activists everywhere to protect personal privacy.

Profound and important as these issues are, however, it is now possible to see them only as notable features on a much wider emerging landscape of technology fuelled political disruption. At least three other developments deserve equal attention.

Digital Government in Exile

First, there is the Estonian-led phenomena of a ‘digital government in exile’. Fearful of Russian aggression and asking themselves what they could do to preserve the integrity of their government in the event of a loss of national territory, the Estonians have built digital back-ups of all government data, stored at a number of locations around the world. Given that their citizens are used to conducting most interactions with government online, they have, in other words, severed the link between the government’s ability to function and serve those citizens from control of a particular piece of land.

This is an innovative approach to an understandable concern but the concept of a digital government in exile has applicability to circumstances beyond those associated with defending the status quo ante. One could think of any number of places where a national liberation or separatist movement with some foothold in local or regional government might try to do the same, the aim being to put government data beyond the reach of what was seen as a hostile national capital. Indeed, at the height of the Catalan crisis in late 2017, such a possibility was mooted.

Cryptocurrencies and Funding

Second, there is growing evidence that cryptocurrencies are being used to support and sustain a wide range of political projects aimed at undermining or in some sense escaping the current order. In both Venezuela and Iran, crypto-currencies are being used to try to undermine sanctions imposed by the United States. In South Africa, an all-white far right group is attempting to use a crypto-currency to cut itself off from the rest of the state. The military wing of Hamas has been crowdfunding via Bitcoin. After the Catalan government declared independence and some of its members were forced into exile its leader, Carles Puigdemont, reportedly set up a crypto-currency donation fund to help them. There has even been a suggestion that a separatist movement like that in Catalonia could launch a crypto-bond to give it a source of funds entirely beyond the reach of the Spanish government in Madrid.

Blockchain Elections

Third, there is the developing use of blockchains to organise and conduct elections. This phenomenon may be hugely empowering and give citizens a say in much decision-making that is currently handled in opaque, over-centralised bureaucracies. Many will celebrate it as an idea whose time has come. The disruptive and subversive potential to the political quo should not be under-estimated.

Some campaigners for an independent Scotland are already seizing on the idea, with potential to aid and perhaps transform their cause. Plans are afoot to underpin voting in Scotland with blockchain distributed ledger technology and to use biometric and facial recognition ID to allow voters to register for a ‘digital passport’, enabling them to vote online. If this system takes off, it would transform the way tests of public opinion on something like independence could be conducted, making referenda and elections far cheaper, easier and potentially far quicker to organise and conduct, perhaps on a regular basis.

When you put all this together, what emerges is a future of profound change.

In the longer-term, the way these developments are integrated will determine their full transformative potential. It is possible to imagine, for example, dark money, disinformation campaigns and the willingness to physically host ‘digital governments in exile’ being clandestinely proffered by one state. These could be combined with attempts by separatists to use encrypted messaging, blockchain-based voting and cryptocurrencies in pursuit of their goals in another.

It may take some time yet before this all comes to fruition as the technologies in question develop, experimentation takes place, and vested interests and established institutions attempt to counter or resist many of these developments. The warning signs are already there. Established institutions of authority everywhere are vulnerable to an emerging architecture of technology facilitated disruption.

Ian Kearns
July 2019

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Briefing Overview

Title: Hacking the Political Order 2.0
Author: Ian Kearns

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