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eIDAS and Blockchain technology to fight disinformation

Posted: Feb 11, 2019 by Instinctif Partners

By Luben Kabaktchiev 

Fake news and elections

Since the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, the deliberate spread of misinformation by politicians, foreign powers and entrepreneurs—sometimes summarised as “fake news” -- has become a hot topic for discussion among EU regulators and media. Numerous studies have highlighted the unprecedented distortive effects of sloppy reporting and disinformation on people’s decisions as a real threat to democracy. As new technology gives us a bigger presence online, fake profiles and misleading information are continuously flooding the Internet, raising concerns over the integrity of the upcoming EU elections. Furthermore, recent evidence showed that disinformation can also go one step further by making use of personal data gained through unauthorised access. Its potential to sway voters’ choice is thus no longer a phantom menace and the general public has become as alarmed as politicians. Research for Instinctif Partners showed a majority of UK voters, for example, even favours criminal penalties for the deliberate spread of “fake news.”.

The challenges in tackling disinformation

The EU has proposed a series of measures to fight fake news, including better fact-checking and better media literacy education in schools. But one difficulty in fighting deliberate disinformation stems from the ability of mischievous online users to easily set up an online presence, mask their identity and location and broadcast information and ads to disseminate fake news. At its core, it’s a problem of identification and accountability. Tackling fake news also requires the careful balance of EU citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and anonymity against the threat posed by fake news. Our definition of fake news will also continue to evolve, for example in response to artificial intelligence-based image synthesis technology, also known as deep fakes, that makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between real and fake.

eIDAS as a solution

While technology may be an important tool for spreading disinformation, technology can also help us fight it. There is a strong case for making use of new technology such as Electronic Identification and Trust Services (eIDAS) and blockchain, a distributed ledger technology that can be used, among other things, to authenticate information flows. The Commission’s Communication on disinformation promoted electronic identification and blockchain to facilitate the authentication, verification and identification of suppliers of information online through trusted identity providers. The concept of using eIDAS to fight disinformation is simple: everyone creating an account, posting content online, writing a review or buying an ad would be required to identify themselves electronically to demonstrate that they are indeed who they claim to be. This can take the form of electronic signatures or video identification which is able to securely associate the signer with the online account or the information shared using a secure private key. This would put an end to fake accounts and bots and create more accountability for the people who share information.

At the same time, political ads would become more transparent and content shared by identified users would be perceived as being more trustworthy. This in turn would encourage the supply of authentic and unaltered information that does not distort EU citizens’ choice on key decisions such as voting in the European elections. eIDAS can thus be used to boost information suppliers’ credibility and reputation by ensuring trust in the information that spreads via the Internet.

Blockchain as a solution

Similarly, blockchain-based technology can allow users and information suppliers to publish information in return for a tamper-proof record of identity to be stored on the blockchain, which establishes an audit trail to its source. Blockchain is decentralised and ensures security through cryptographic algorithms and digital signatures. Used together or apart, blockchain and eIDAS can improve transparency, reliability and traceability of news. Furthermore, the data used for identification is securely held by an independent third party, which thwarts abuse and unauthorised access. In addition, that sort of technology can thwart deep fakes as a means of disinformation by digitally signing and thereby creating a unique fingerprint for the video. This can be done by processing the video through an algorithm which matches the data to this digital fingerprint. The fingerprint can then be stored in a secure database to prevent tampering and serve as evidence of where it came from and whether it has been altered. A voluntary approach can be especially effective if content posted by verified individuals is filtered or favoured by website and platform algorithms on the basis of reputation and verification.

Sticking points

Promising as eIDAS and blockchain may be, they also raise sticky issues including freedom of expression and the right to stay anonymous – hence the self-regulatory approach proposed by the Commission. A voluntary approach would require commitment, social responsibility and cooperation from various stakeholders such as websites, platforms and media. Other questions that arise are what should we do with our knowledge of the identity of perpetrators, and is a voluntary approach the best way to dissuade them? If a voluntary approach fails and the Commission decides to take a regulatory approach towards authentication, other challenges may emerge such as defining fake news and establishing a regulatory body that could objectively regulate on the basis of this definition.

All in all, it remains to be seen whether self-regulation will bear fruit. So far, the Commission seems pleased with the progress that platforms and media organisations have made. Deep fakes are still a problem in search of a solution and eIDAS and blockchain are potential solutions to at least part of the problem of fake news.