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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It’s action, not information, that matters in IW

No, we're not "getting our asses kicked" in the information environment.

I’ve got so much more to say about this, but for now, this will have to do.

No, we don’t “suck” at information warfare.

Just because someone else out there – some adversary – can slap some memes together doesn’t mean that we’re “getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

If you hang around the IW circus long enough, you come to realize that what actually matters are the actions and events that take place in the real world – not the flashy media that comes along with it – or behind it.

Oh, it can certainly move the needle – and it can serve as an accelerant.

Too much of a focus on pure information operations means you’re just spouting propaganda – in the worst sense of the term. That is, words and images without real meaning.

Like I said, I’ve got more to say about this and it’s on the list of things to do. I’ll get there.

In the interim, I’d urge you to push back when someone states categorically “we suck at IW.”

It’s very easy to say that we’re not good at something and be praised for it, and then go on about how we have to “do better.”

Do better how? Give me an example.

They usually don’t know what they’re talking about.

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We only know because there is video

Have you noticed that when you watch the news these days (if you watch the news at all) the most inane things will be presented as important enough to deliver to an audience of millions of people? Cars falling off bridges, close encounters with dangerous animals, fights at restaurants in cities far away, and on and on.

Why?

Because there is video.

This isn’t new. As humans, we have a bias towards imagery, especially video. We want to see it.

But with the proliferation of smartphones – just about everyone has a recording device in their pocket – the opportunity to capture excting events has ballooned.

Video is engaging. Video is emotional.

Often, while watching the news, I’ll get sucked into whatever is being shown to me and have to remind myself that this is only news because someone captured it on their smartphone. The national news would not waste the precious seconds reporting to me the facts of a bear attack in Wisconsin without video of the encounter – no one cares.

It’s just something to think about if you find yourself getting charged up about something you see on television (or online). Would you actually care if someone told you about the event or you read about it in the newspaper? Or do you only care because you were able to see it?

And does that distinction matter?

I think it does.

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We don’t need no stinking USIA

From now on, this is my repsonse/reaction article to overly simplistic calls for a rejuvenation of the USIA.

The org chart is just fine.

And I continue to think that folks think bringing back the USIA will work because, you know, it has ‘information’ in the name.

We have the tools and we have the talent.

What we need is a clear vision, direction, and commander’s intent.

And then, a willingness to let subordinates go to town.

USIA was the manifestation of segregating information from policy; USIA’s authorities were less than the organization it replaced; and, USIA was not charged with nor did it conduct an anti-/counter-political warfare mission. Today, the organizational chart as-is has the potential to surpass the relevance, integration, and effectiveness of USIA if the White House and Secretary of State would appreciate this function, hire the right person, and support and hold accountable this office and its role.

The Irony of Misinformation and USIA, MountainRunner

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Army and Air Force, working together (in information warfare)

New article up at MWI on the importance of bringing service-specific IO folks together in training and operations.

There are so many reasons to bring together the different IO stakeholders across the services. And while the below is the last reason, I actually think it might deserve top-billing.

If nothing else, even just the unique qualities everyone brings to the fight based on their respective service’s culture enables joint access to potential capabilities and personnel that might otherwise be missed or overlooked.

Breaking Out of Our Silos, Modern War Institute

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Smith-Mundt as Counter-Political Warfare

Glad to see Matt Armstrong on a recent Cognitive Crucible podcast – this one on his passion project, the much-misunderstood “Smith-Mundt Act.”

If you’ve been around the “information operations” space, the Smith-Mundt act is usually taught during a class on “authorities.” There will be a slide that usually includes some text lifted from the act and then a “bottom line” that the US government is prohibited from informing/influencing/targeting/propagandizing/etc domestic American audiences.

Next slide, please.

Once that nugget buries itself into someone’s head, it gets carted out usually as a bulwark to doing anything in the info-space.

“Yes, but don’t forget the Smith-Mundt act…”

The history of the actual legislation is much more nuanced. Instead of “prohibiting” domestic dissemination, it was actually intended to “allow” dissemination abroad (by the State Department) as a direct counter to burgeoning Soviet political warfare.

“…we have nevertheless been too preoccupied in the past with feeding the stomachs of people while the Soviets have concentrated on feeding their minds.”

1947 European CODEL (MountainRunner)

If we’re going to conduct political warfare effectively, we have to understand this history. This is wonky territory, but that’s ok, because as Matt states in the episode, this stuff starts with President of the United States. It should be wonky – it’s incredibly important.

Anyway, the episode is worth your time – especially if you are an information warfare practicioner, or more importantly, if you are (or will be) in a position to make command decisions in an operational environment. You, more than anyone else, can make a huge impact if you understand what you can do – which is a lot.

Some interesting tidbits in this episode:

  • Opening: Defining “public diplomacy” and why that even matters
  • ~18:00: Smith-Mundt as a way to counter Russian political warfare
  • ~19:00: “We feed stomachs, the Russians feed minds…”
  • ~19:30: The importance of strategic vision – “We used to have an idea of where we were going…”
  • ~23:00: Our system is obsessed with bueracractic responsibility as opposed to methods, means, and outcomes – and this is bad
  • ~28:00: On the “terminal limits” of PSYOP leadership – if PSYOP officers terminate at the O6 level, can we really make a difference?
  • ~28:30: It is an unfortunate truth that the person who is most likely to influence an operational commander’s decision making is not the PSYOP officer giving advice on the psychological impacts of activities and operations, but the PAO, or worse, the JAG
  • ~37:00: “Stop it policy” – we are too reactive. Instead of seizing or defining the narrative, we are constantly reacting to nonsense in an attempt to “make it stop”
  • ~41:00: We need to get way more comfortable making mistakes – let subordinates fail in the IE – it’s ok – our adversaries are doing it every day
  • ~45:00: What even is “propaganda?”

Also, towards the end Matt references the fascinating topic of a PSYOP officer who wrote a book shortly after WWII arguing that influence operations should be banned via treaty. I’m now officially on the hunt for it.

It’s a great episode. Check it out.

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Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

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Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.

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The saga of Tom Olsen

A really fascinating thing happened on Twitter over the past month. Long story short, a fan of of Metal Gear created a Twitter account (@TheTomOlsen). “Tom” is just a regular guy who happens to work on “Big Shell,” the ocean platform that is the setting for most of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Over the course of the month, he posted innocuous photos of daily life on the platform.

The official Metal Gear Twitter account retweeted one of these and rumors began to spread rapidly that the “Tom” account might be a guerilla marketing campaign intended to build enthusiasm for an announcement of a new Metal Gear game. Lots of gaming websites picked up on this and spread the same rumor.

In the end, it was all just the work of a dedicated fan.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is credited as being prophetic of our current environment. A key theme is the spread of misinformation, disinformation and how that plays with our expectations. The game itself constantly teased and harrassed the player, breaking the fourth wall over and over again to make the point.

In the video embedded in tweet below, the force behind “Tom” explains this.

In a strange way, it’s been a very fitting way to memorialize MGS2 — by demonstrating how the rapid transmission of information can lead to the suppression of truth.

Lies spread faster than truth. And even when the lie is refuted, there is a percentage of people who will still only remember the lie.

What I find particularly interesting about this saga is the fact that this must have been well planned and thought out in advance. The deluge of posts, photos, and videos that were shared that “chronicled” the attack on Big Shell were done with purpose – it was polished and professional. The screenshots made it look like Tom was walking through Big Shell snapping photos, taking video, and sharing it with the world. These photos needed to be digitally staged. The force behind Tom knew his target audience. He knew what would get people churning.

This all took work and I’d love to know how long it took to get everything prepped.

The account didn’t respond to others, it had its own agenda. But that didn’t stop others from using it to fit their own narratives or desires.

The account hijacked the fans collective desires and weaponized them for fun. People want a new game, so that’s what they believed. “Tom” never said anything about it, but others filled in the gaps.

Just a really fascinating story.

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“It is happening right now”

Another good episode from the Cogntivie Crucible. And the second podcast I’ve heard featuring LtGen Lori Reynolds (first here, from the Irregular Warfare Initiative).

LtGen Lori Reynolds leads the Marine Corps’ modernization efforts related to operations in the information environment. During this episode, our wide ranging discussion covers competition, professional military education, authorities, technology, and partnerships.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #38 Reynolds on Operations in the Information Environment

LtGen Reynolds does a great job wrapping up the totality of the world we live in today, especially as it relates to media literacy and the fact that we’re all “in the game” when we have a smartphone in our pocket.

The nightmare quote:

“This whole idea of algorithmic warfare, it can be benign, or it can be malign, but it is happening right now. And it’s happening on your personal device.”

Following up.

“If we think that our adversaries are not going to come after the United States military and impact our will to fight, we’re wrong.”

It’s refreshing to know we’re taking this seriously. The tough part is building the education, infrastructure, and systems to be ready before the “Pearl Harbor” of this style of warfare occurs.

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