CAPE TOWN – A war of words looks very different in the 21st century in a world dominated by agendas and ever more sophisticated technology. In fact, we have reached a point where, very easily, “words” and “images” can start wars.
Technology is also a double-edged sword. It can be used for upliftment and good, or, in the wrong hands, it can be used to spread dissension and division, such as "disinformation" – false or misleading information (misinformation) spread deliberately to deceive.
It is into the rather necessary realm of forensic cyber-security that technology investment group AYO Technology Solutions (AYO) is looking to take a stand. This is in order to help in the delivery of trusted content for easy discernment and to help people separate fact from fiction, particularly in the fields of news, advertising, e-commerce and even politics.
Already, readers struggle to tell the difference between a genuine news item and an opinion piece, an authentic news site or a website made to look like one but which peddles half-truths or deliberate falsehoods. Add another layer to this, such as fabricated videos for example, known as “deepfakes”, and it is no wonder there is growing concern over what could be termed next-generation information warfare.
Photo and image manipulation, as well as the generation of fake news, are no longer “news”. However, the deep learning capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning tools is making it easier and faster to create masterpieces of visual deception.
This power can, of course, be abused to create and spread large-scale fear and confusion at a citizen and public level to the extent where it can affect national security. In today's context, it is screen warfare that wins the hearts and minds of easily swayed people.
Whereas cyber-security is the use of technologies, systems and processes mainly aimed at the protection of data, AYO is looking to go one step further by looking at the source material itself, before it is transmitted.
AYO’s chief executive, Howard Plaatjes, believes the group has a constitutional responsibility to use its asset base to build robust forensic cyber-security defences, to help ensure that digital content can be source verified.
“We are collaborating with digital media producers in pursuing cryptographic identifiers to cross-reference to verifiable sources,” shared Plaatjes.
“While it makes commercial sense for us to develop or acquire these systems, it is sad that digital media authentication is a necessity in this day and age. Media, including advertising, without the requisite crypto identifier, will be deemed less trustworthy or fake otherwise.”
Plaatjes also points out that incorporating identifiers into material is akin to SSL Security measures that test whether online form fillers are humans or robots.
A prime example of where the placement of crypto identifiers on advertising would be a pre-requisite, are political campaigns. This would immediately and clearly identify the source material and whether it was authentic and could therefore be trusted, or if it had been “manufactured” to convey a differing perspective or offer up discrediting news to derail the opponents efforts.
This tactic of course is not limited to the political arena as corporate competition has also been known to benefit from such measures.
There are several areas that AYO wishes to address regarding the development of cryptographic identifiers. These include the authenticity of news, marketing and advertising engines to safeguard consumers from fake campaigns but also, increasingly, to help them distinguish whether external influence is getting in the way – such as foreign powers interfering in domestic politics for example.
Worryingly, studies are showing that many learners can't distinguish between sponsored content and news stories on social media and e-commerce platforms. Even more concerning is the growing need to authenticate some of the material used in the learning environment itself.
“We need to bolster media literacy in public schools and tertiary institutions,” stated Plaatjes, who says AYO is already building on its cyber-security and e-learning capabilities, in the hope that it can provide workable and scalable solutions to learning institutions to authenticate materials and resources.
Additionally, the group is also developing the appropriate tools through the AYO Academy to train students themselves how to evaluate trustworthy media on social media and e-commerce platforms.
Cybersecurity is not a nice-to-have or confined to businesses and governments, it has become an essential life tool for everyone, whether connected to the digital ecosystem or not.
Faced with the post-Covid era of remote working, e-learning, e-commerce, slowing economic growth and even dissatisfied corporate boards, overwhelmed security systems, and the constant pressure and need to get ahead, we can expect the information warfare to heat up.
The question is, how deep is your defence system against an information takeover?