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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Storyweapons and Storywarriors

“But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness.”

Finally sat down to read this quick article by Renny Gleeson in Cyber Defense Review. Renny works in advertising, which is important, as we don’t often get perspectives on information warfare from outside the military or national security bubble. As such, this take is a bit demilitarized (hence the non-doctrinal term “storyweapon”).

Gleeson makes the argument – as many others have – that we have entered a new realm, where the confluence of marketing, digital media, computers, and psychology have made all of us more vulnerable to manipulation by adversaries. It’s a good recap and overview of things IO professionals should have a solid grasp of – the race to the bottom for clicks, the primacy of emotion over rationality as demonstrated through the important work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, and the fact that none of this is going away.

Nothing new here so far.

What Gleeson argues through his article, though, is that what this all leads to is what he calls the primacy of “storyweapons.” He defines this in his opening line as “adversarial narratives that use algorithms, automation, codespaces, and data to hijack decision-making, and the stories of who we are, what we believe and why it matters.”

Storyweapons, as I read it, are not that much different from what we mean when we talk about “narrative warfare,” another non-doctrinal term that gets a lot of attention these days.

And all of these are variations or spin-offs of something doctrinal that we do know: political warfare.

Anyway, to defeat adversarial storyweapons, Gleeson argues that we need to employ our own storyweapons, writing “we need storywarriors on the field, fighting for the best version of America.”

I don’t disagree with that. The problem, as he sees it (and I do too), is that we have a hard time doing that. Here he quotes General (Ret) Jim Mattis who says “a proper understanding of our national story is absent.”

It’s not that we necessarily have to package up ideas, narratives, messages, or whatever, and get it “out there” in the “information environment.” It’s that we have to actually believe in this project – the American story – and project that through action. Certainly there is a role for information operations as it more commonly understood (crafting themes and messages, media, PSYOP, etc.), but there is no calibration or tweaking that fixes all of this.

The concept of “storyweapons” has me skeptical, because it sounds like a simple, short-term solution to a complex, long term problem. Making a “storybomb” and dropping it on a target audience, with the idea that it is going to change something that has a long term tangible result is unlikely. Unfortunately, our incentives are aligned for the short term (politically, operationally, and personally).

Some choice excerpts from the article:

Our stories are more vulnerable than we know: our cognitive systems are hackable by everyone, from kids’ birthday party magicians to infowar adversaries. We do not see the flaws in those systems because they are features of the systems. Storyweapons leverage the infrastructure of perception to misguide, misdirect, and manipulate.

Yes, this is everywhere. And it’s not new. It’s just that many of us are only now realizing it. The advent of the smartphone and the constant notifications represent perhaps the most tactile example of this.

By biological design, outrage, fear, and the unfair light up these lower regions, grab the spotlight of our attention and short-circuit rational thought. 

This is why the ads below articles on websites you might otherwise enjoy are littered with pictures and copy designed to excite or scare you. It’s hard not to click an ad that promises you photos of an actor or actress who you don’t really know but are curious about how they look now or thirty years ago.

The ruthless economic imperative behind the zero-sum wars for attention has fueled the rise of outrage as a business model in the places we connect with who and what we love.

Yes. This also is not new, though. I’d recommend the book The Attention Merchants (2016) which covers the history of advertising. It’s always been a race to the bottom. It’s how you get snake oil salesman and yellow journalism – concepts and tactics that are over a century old. And it’s how we get those stupid ads I just mentioned.

“life-as-software-mediated-experience”

Gross.

We will be alone together: two people looking at the same thing at the same time will sense different things. 

Here he is talking about literally looking at the same space and seeing a different thing, as in advertisements. Imagine walking through a mall or airport and looking at an adverisement on the wall, but you see one thing based on your data while another person sees something else. This is already happening. I think more importantly, we are already living in a world where we can look at the exact same *physical* thing and come to completely different conclusions based on our information diet and the bubble that we live in. To me, this is more frightening. We can look at the nude emperor and admire his clothing, and everyone is okay with it and will say the clothes are beautiful.

Everyone and everything that touches software is effectively on the new Storyweapon battle field; there is no “behind the lines.”

Yes, this is true. I feel confident that the greater public doesn’t know this yet, because a majority of the military isn’t aware of it. There are options for changing this, but it will take time and effort.

You can’t beat a “true enough” storyweapon with facts.

So true.

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