Will AI Hack Our Democracy?

  • Harvard Kennedy School Magazine
  • Summer 2023

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Back in 2021, I wrote an essay titled “The Coming AI Hackers,” about how AI would hack our political, economic, and social systems. That ended up being a theme of my latest book, A Hacker’s Mind, and is something I have continued to think and write about.

I believe that AI will hack public policy in a way unlike anything that’s come before. It will change the speed, scale, scope, and sophistication of hacking, which in turn will change so many things that we can’t even imagine how it will all shake out. At a minimum, everything about public policy—how it is crafted, how it is implemented, what effects it has on individuals—will change in ways we cannot foresee.

But let me back up. “Hack” is a techie term for a trick that subverts computer code. In my book, I generalize it to cover all sorts of rules. The tax code, for example, isn’t computer code, but it is nevertheless code of a sort. It’s a set of rules that determine how much tax you have to pay. Those rules have mistakes, or bugs, that lead to vulnerabilities that lead to exploitation. We call them loopholes and tax-avoidance strategies, but it’s the same idea.

A hack follows the rules but subverts their intent. In public policy, think of gerrymandering, filibusters, tricks to get around campaign finance rules, must-pass legislation, and everything gig-economy companies do to skirt labor laws. None of this is new, and finding these loopholes is a human creative endeavor.

AI has the potential to change that. Someday soon, it will be able to optimize lobbying strategy, finding hidden connections between legislators and constituents. It will create “micro-legislation”: tiny units of law that surreptitiously benefit one person or group without being obvious about it. It will find new tax loopholes, possibly utilizing complicated strategies involving multiple countries. It will be able to do all these things and more, faster than any human possibly could, and deploy them at a scale and scope that no human could match. The world isn’t ready for hundreds, or thousands, of new tax loopholes, or for new tricks to make money in the financial markets. At computer speed, scale, scope, and sophistication, such hacks could overwhelm our existing systems of governance.

But not all is bleak. The same AI that could exploit these loopholes could also close them. And the same reforms that make these systems fairer for humans will also make them less exploitable by hackers—whether human or AI. But we need governance systems to be more agile. This is a bigger issue than hacking by AI, of course; it’s about governing our fast-moving technological world. The real problem of AI is less what the technology can do and more who it is doing it for. The AI that will figure out new tax loopholes, or new hedge-fund strategies, isn’t in a university and working for the good of humanity. It’s in the basement of a multinational financial corporation and working for its clients. Right now, AI technology makes the powerful even more powerful. And that’s something public policy can address today.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.