POWs in the Digital Era

Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force

This is the second Cognitive Crucible episode I’ve heard that features Professor Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton from the Army Cyber Institute. The first discussed the idea that service members are all very likely targets of foreign influence operations – regardless of whether or not there is active armed conflict.

In this recent episode, they go a step further and discuss the need to prepare for a future where our POWs (prisoners of war) will be further exploited through the use of enhanced deep-fake technology, deception, and instantaneous communication.

More importantly, they discuss how our own institutional structures can be exploited at home by the same.

During this episode, Prof. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute return to the Cognitive Crucible and discuss prisoner of war (POW) considerations in the digital world. After Jan recaps his recent article, In Great Power Wars, Americans Could Again Become POWs, the conversation covers the will to fight, cognitive preparation of the battlefield, and ways the enemy might harvest information about service members in advance to identify exploitable information. Both Jan and Stephen give some policy suggestions, as well.

Cognitive Crucible, #58 Kallberg and Hamilton on POWs in a Digital World

This is the type of warning that should scare you. It’s nightmare fuel.

Some things I found particularly interesting:

  • Our personal information is already out there

When social media started to emerge over a decade ago, general security guidance was to avoid putting personal information out there, be mindful of what you’re doing online, and increase your privacy settings.

Good advice, to be sure.

Further, some advised not having social media at all, while others warned that not having social media in an increasingly connected world seemed suspicious.

Well, now we’re at a place where whether you want your “stuff” to be out there or not, it’s out there. If an adversary (or a troll, or harasser) wants to scrape the internet for your stuff, it’s not hard to do.

And for the generation growing up in the shadow of all this, there will be even more “stuff” out there for the foreseeable future.

The genie is out of the bottle. It’s not going back in.

My take – this is over. We’re moving toward a society where the ability to maintain pure privacy is ending. There is little we can do at the individual level to protect ourselves completely. When you combine the growing digital ecosystem with nefarious cyber activities of state and non-state actors, our default position should be that “our information is going to get out there.”

Accept it, plan for it, and move on.

We’re really starting to put this thing together. Researchers and practitioners are weaving a quilt of what information warfare is likely to look like in the near future. It’s already happening, but we haven’t quite got it all figured out yet.

Personally, I think it’s important that we start talking – and implementing policy – that will defend us from this. We can’t just warn that it’s going to happen. We will be caught off guard if we are not prepared.

  • POWs have congressional representatives

This was very spooky. The guests discuss the fact that in future-war, there may no longer be a need to have a POW make a public statement disparaging the United States or the war effort. A hyper-realistic fake could be easily created and beamed out to the world.

That captured service member has a congressional representative somewhere back home. What happens when these POWs are exploited with the intent of influencing domestic politics? What happens when a reporter asks Congressman X what she is doing about the captured soldier who comes from her district?

What is her statement when a dramatic video is released of that servicemember begging his congressional representative – by name – to end the war?

What happens when public pressure is placed on that same congressional representative – from her constituents – to “do something” about this?

  • Television is an instrument that can paralyze this country.” -General William Westmoreland

There was a quick discussion on how what we are seeing now in the information age is just an extension of what we started to experience during the Vietnam War. When there are pictures and images, we pay attention. As much as we like to think we are rational creatures, our decision-making process – even at the strategic level – is often guided by emotions, “optics,” and a burning desire to “control the narrative.” These are often not rational decisions, but decisions that seek to please some interest.

How would things be different if there were no dramatic images? No compelling video? If you had to read the results of overseas operations the next day in your local newspaper, splayed out dispassionately?

I think we would address things more rationally. But I’m not certain that our decisions would always be “better.”

Again, the genie is out of the bottle. There is a role for education. There is a very important role for leaders (at all levels) to be patient and take the longer view. But there is also the realization that words, images, and video matter.

” Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

Marshall McLuhan
  • A picture is worth a thousand words
1st Lt. Anthony Aguilar wears the ballistic protective eyewear that prevented a bomb-fragment from possibly damaging his eyes when an IED detonated near his Stryker vehicle while on patrol in Mosul. (Photo by Company C, Task Force 2-1, Feb. 2006.)

COL Hamilton discussed an anecdote from a deployment where he witnessed the rapid purchase of a particular type of eye protection after one of the Generals was shown a picture with a piece of shrapnel lodged in the eye protection that would have almost certainly caused tremendous damage to the soldier’s vision. All of the statistics and lab reports in the world might not move someone to action. But a single image that demonstrates the effect might do the trick.

I don’t like it either – I wish we could be more Spock-like and make decisions based on the evidence.

But there it is.

This was a good episode – one that should have us thinking, and more importantly, moving towards crafting policies and procedures to prepare us for the kinds of deception and smear tactics we’re likely to see in both in the day-to-day operations of Great Power Competition and in the next shooting war.

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