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The Battle of Maldon, over 1000 years on

 
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In the final years of the first millennium, the Vikings were at their final peak of terrorising the coasts of north-west Europe, and eastern England in particular.  The first attacks had been centuries beforehand, so the threat to non-Viking communities was well-known, and much feared.  Part of the problem had been that some leaders had chosen to pay them off, rather than to fight back, which meant that these attacks became highly profitable, and only encouraged more subsequent incursions.

In 990, one such powerful band of Vikings, perhaps 4,000 strong and led by Olaf, were busy applying this business model on the Anglo-Saxons of East Anglia and Essex.  They sailed up the River Blackwater in Essex, where they were met by the local earl, Byrhtnoth.  However, he subscribed to the “fight back” school of invader management.  The Vikings disembarked from their longboats on an island on the river, which had a causeway to the mainland at low tide.  Olaf the Viking demanded his ransom, which Byrhtnoth rejected. Three Anglo-Saxon warriors advanced and successfully engaged the Vikings at the head of the causeway.  This meant the Vikings were trapped on the island.

At that point, Olaf asked Byrhtnoth to allow them across the shore to engage in formal battle.  According to the epic Old English poetic account of the battle, The Battle of Maldon, Byrhtnoth agreed “for his ofermode”, which translates as something like “because of his overconfidence”.  The battle took place, during which an Anglo-Saxon called Godric, either through cowardice or treachery, fled the battle on Byrhtnoth’s horse. This led the rank and file to think their leader had abandoned them.  The Saxon army was defeated, and Byrhtnoth was killed (his headless body was later found still holding his sword).

The story of Byrhtnoth in The Battle of Maldon was clearly intended as that of the hero in defeat, doing the honourable thing of following the traditional noble rules of engagement, even if that meant at increased personal cost.  Alternatively, according to the more “Horrible Histories” school of historiography, it is held up as an example of incredible naivete or stupidity in the face of obvious and immediate danger, especially when you have your enemy right where you want them. 

It strikes me that in the last couple of weeks, our attitudes towards personal data on social media have started going through a similar philosophical shift. We have moved from the honourable and traditional sharing of information in good faith, to the realisation that giving away your valuable high ground, whether moral, strategic, secure or otherwise, is naïve and leaves you open to much greater threats than you realise.

A Bit on Cyber-Security

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference about Cyber Security.  Firstly, the speaker (a well-known Cyber Security expert with a lot of experience), pointed out one of the secret tricks that scammers have used to gather valuable personal information via Facebook.  In fact, he has written a book on the subject.  This was a game where you say what your “porn star” name is – according to the game, this was the name of your first pet, and the name of the road you lived in as a child.  Thousands of people put these details into a Facebook application, because it was fun, amusing and essentially harmless.  However, what the scammers knew, and the victims had forgotten, was that these are the same pieces of information that are often used as additional security questions by banks.  And they had just created an environment where they had thousands of people giving them key personal bank details without realising it.

Quite a few people in the audience were shocked that information could be stolen like that, from a place of trust.  Well, after the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, no-one is shocked any more.  Or at least no one should be shocked. 

As several of my friends in the industry have pointed out in the last week, this is not new news.  It was more than an open secret that if you were running a campaign on Facebook and used Open Graph, you would get all the underlying consumer data about the people you engaged with.  In fact, it was almost part of the proposition.  And this was happening eight years ago.

As Bryhtnoth perhaps could testify, some people’s ability to believe the best of intentions of people they have never met can be excessive.

What is different now? 

The main difference now is that the battleground has changed.  It’s almost culturally acceptable to use personal data to change people’s minds about a brand (that’s called consumerism). And it’s a game in which the consumer does have real ongoing power (if the brand lets you down, you don’t buy it any more).  So, the rules of engagement here are closer to that of the boggy ground on the island. This is more equal, or even more in favour of the traditional consumer (against the brand “invaders” who would get you to give them your money).  The terrain (in terms of legislation, consumer rights, and fair play) means the brand has to engage you in a comparatively limited way, including on social media – a bit like the causeway on the island at Maldon.

The old beliefs meant people could accept the rules about how to use social media.  What the Cambridge Analytica scandal has done is move the battleground onto the hallowed turf of politics and democracy.  How you vote is one of the most deeply-held types of opinions, about which many people will often only talk openly with immediate family members, or trusted friends, or those in special environments (like dinner parties) where there is an implied “Chatham House” rule about not sharing information more widely. 

So, the idea that political opinions can be manipulated at all is a difficult subject for many Westerners. But, if they are, they are usually changed over a long period of time, by many topics, sources or experiences.  The political battle cannot be won or lost on a social media platform, goes the logic. We are confident in our rational decision making when it comes to politics.

However, the Cambridge Analytica interviews have demonstrated at the very least that this is the intention of political campaigners. We can’t know whether this has actually had the desired effect, but we do, as consumers, now know it’s quite possible.  Because, unusually, platforms like Facebook do include your immediate family members and trusted friends. So, people have started talking about politics in those environments, and assumed that the debating chamber on which these discussions take place are, if not actually like the dining room, at least a neutral ground.  But that’s now what this new world is exposed not to be.

We have invited our opinion invaders across the defensive causeway and onto that hallowed ground, into the debating chamber or the dinner party.   Because we became so (over) confident in our political rationality, and political systems – our own form of “ofermode” -  that we thought we could still win the battle there as well. 

But one thing is now clear - we are fighting by the invaders’ rules, not ours.  Rather than fighting based on the lofty ideals and noble traditions of Bryhtnoth, the invaders can drag us down to fight at their level.

And in the melee, you can’t see everything clearly any longer.  You suddenly see someone you think you recognise and respect heading in the opposite direction on their noble steed.  You don’t stop to check whether that’s really them, or whether it’s a sleight of hand, or whether they really mean it.  Because to do so would be to admit that you are being influenced by these invaders.  But, well, maybe, if that’s the way all my friends are going…

Does it Really Matter?

No-one can know whether Cambridge Analytica’s activities really did affect the 2016 Presidential election, or the Brexit vote.  It’s quite probable, like with all marketing agencies, that they overstate their impact on the end-result.

But that’s why it’s different now, and why this is now a moment when people stop thinking that old traditional ways about how organisations will use customer data are right, and start to be more shrewd and aware of the threats.

As consumers, I don’t think we fully understand the subtleties and intricacies of how data could be used against us.  But this gap in understanding is changing, through education, both at schools, and in businesses doing training programmes on data security.  People are realising that they can’t just rely on technology to do the job for them.

However, there are still gaps that need to be filled.  Having gone to two data security seminars in the last month (and been told different advice by two different well-respected speakers), I think it’s clear that consumer advice needs to improve. Too many experts in the space seem to preach only the Gospel according to themselves, and anything else is either wrong or dangerous, or both.  That doesn’t help. Each approach has its benefits, but also its limitations and vulnerabilities, and it’s important that people are aware of all of these.

But it also doesn’t mean that we should batten down the hatches and never speak to our friends and fellow mankind ever again.  There is a third view of the Battle of Maldon, which is that Bryhtnoth knew he had to engage the Vikings there.  Perhaps he knew his capital at Colchester was undermanned or poorly defended at that time (the epic poem of course does not record this) so it was a greater danger to the kingdom to let Olaf’s hordes give up and embark the longboats, where they would find a city at their mercy. 

So:

  • Don’t give up on social media and sharing your data with digital organisations. Many of these organisations have done much more good than harm, and life is unquestionably better as a result. 
  • But, we do all need to make sure we use and engage with people on them with our eyes open. No one should be blindly providing information without understanding the risks.