Garry Kasparov

A new era for politics and information security

Garry Kasparov, 11 November 2016

The one irrefutable lesson from Hillary Clinton’s defeat is that modern systems require modern security measures.

Tuesday’s election defied virtually all expert opinion confidently put forth on traditional media channels. As many pundits have since accurately, albeit belatedly, noted, the outcome was a complete rejection of the country’s political establishment. More than that, it was a repudiation of the centralized, elite-driven information network that wrongly believed it still held a monopoly on public opinion. The result of this year’s presidential election is a stark indicator that the dominance of newspapers and cable television has passed, and that the new barometer of the public mood is social media—which Donald Trump understood better than any of the analysts and commentators who predicted his defeat.

Think back to all of the criticisms of the Trump campaign for not having a strong “ground game,” while Clinton’s huge staff and sprawling team of volunteers called every number, knocked on every door. Meanwhile, Trump’s strategy (if one can call it that) consisted of inundating Twitter with insults, boasts, and blatant lies, often late into the night. But this approach turned out to be much better suited to the age in which we find ourselves, in which we can curate our own streams of information, rather than passively accepting what the gatekeepers of the mass media allow to filter through.

Moreover, it can take a high level of education to separate fact from fiction in the dense information jungle we face online, leaving many susceptible to the fear-mongering and scapegoating Trump has mastered. The president-elect of the United States exploited the potential of the internet better than any other candidate this election cycle, offering sound bites that reverberated across social networks and left a lasting impression on millions of Americans. His views could all be summed up in brief, explosive, viscerally emotional phrases—“Build a Wall,” “Crooked Hillary”—and he proved that, today, these are a more effective currency than the detailed policy briefs Clinton’s team published on her site.

Ultimately, the election became a referendum on Clinton, a deeply flawed candidate. Trump tapped into the directness and intimacy of the new modes of communication available to cement his status as a political outsider and, thus, legitimate critic of the entrenched political class. Obama’s outgoing approval rating was over 50% (if we can still trust any polls!); with that kind of support, historical precedent tells us that the candidate of the same party ought to win. Trump’s strong showing was in large part an indictment of Clinton’s tarnished character, not just dissatisfaction with the policies of the current administration.

I won’t attempt to draw out all the lessons for the politics of the United States here, as I am sure many voices are now trying to cobble together a coherent vision for the future. I have limited myself to commenting on the implications for how we share and consume information.

But one more vital point remains: the protection of this information. Just as we have access to more and more diverse content, its security is also under increasing jeopardy, whether from lone hackers or foreign governments. Clinton’s biggest misstep—her use of an insecure private email server for highly confidential government documents—became a centerpiece of Trump’s attacks. WikiLeaks’ continued releases of stolen emails between Clinton and her advisors gave Trump’s accusations a steady supply of ammunition and overwhelmed Clinton’s rebuttals. It is not an exaggeration to say that poor online security decided the election and the course of American and, inevitably, global history.

If we take only one irrefutable lesson from Clinton’s defeat, let it be that modern systems require modern security measures. We should all understand that deletion is an antiquated notion and private is not a synonym for secure. As we reflect on how to better structure and operate information systems to ensure healthy democracies, let us not forget the first step of any such plan: keeping our private and national communications safe.