event coverage

Fake news and free speech: a different look.

Michael Chertoff, former US Secretary of Homeland Security, delivered the conference's morning keynote. He offered a general look at trends and challenges in cybersecurity, and in particular the value of framing cybersecurity in terms of analogies drawn from biological immunity.

He offered a particularly interesting perspective on one of those challenges in response to a question from the audience. The question, which assumed the salience influence operations have come to assume in cybersecurity generally, asked what might be done about the problem of "fake news," especially as it's been discussed in recent controversy over election meddling. 

Chertoff began his answer by describing himself in effect, as being close to a First Amendment absolutist: "I'm old-fashioned about the First Amendment," is how he put it. He offered familiar reservations about different perspectives, the difficulty of discerning accurate news from disinformation, and the problematic nature of censorship generally.

But as he developed his answer he suggested two promising lines of work. He thought that taking measures against fraud and impersonation much more promising and far less dangerous to free speech than proposals for content filtering and censorship. So the real issues that might be profitably addressed surround identity management and authentication: he suggested that industry might make a contribution here with technical means of uncovering impersonation, and ensuring we know whom we're dealing with online.

A related threat is the one posed by bots, especially those used to spread disinformation in social media. "Botnets don't enjoy First Amendment protection," he observed. Better, more reliable ways of distinguishing bots from natural persons would be welcome.