What follows is a simple story about an increasingly complex problem that affects us all. It provides a narrative for the hypothesis that informed individuals may positively influence and protect national security.
Michael Hayden, is a former Director of the NSA and CIA, a retired Four Star General and author of the book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies. He is an expert on counter terrorism and has visited Russia while in public office.
Today, National Intelligence involves ‘information warfare’ where where for example, the Russians in 2015, publicised messages in the media to instigate fear amongst the US voters. The Trump team in the run up to the election benefitted irrespective of collusion or not. So Team Trump had no incentive to report it. The point is, no matter who is finally blamed for or benefited from foreigners affecting the 2016 elections, the fact is that it happened.
These activities are a shot across the bow for any electoral office and ultimately, the decision making power and security institutions in any country. If an enemy of a democracy has the expertise to do what Russia did in the US, then they have leverage over the victim state. Interestingly, the content that enemies mine online, may not be as important as the information patterns. The latter directly affect strategic thinking.
The New Yorker says that Putin’s goal is to undermine public confidence in the US political system. Also, that he wants Americans to know he is influencing their elections, so that they feel unsettled and less safe. He would like them to think that he may influence whenever he chooses.
It goes without saying that Hayden’s arguments will be supported or challenged equally. One thing is for sure though, is that paying attention to what he says about US National Security and why, has many lessons for all who are interested in strategy. Despite the merits of our arguments, our debate will update our awareness. Your constructive contributions posted below, are appreciated.
Hayden is known for his disregard for homogenised, centralised decision making at the highest institutional levels. The danger of this is that news may easily be manipulated or invented. Without factual input from at least high ranking impartial professionals, controls for management communications may easily become detached from the interests of the greatest number of people.
There is now no meaningful dispute as to the fact that the Russians ‘did something’ that affected the 2016 US elections. The debate, audits, forensics and investigations need now to establish what that ‘something’ is and its impact.
Hayden asserts that in the West, data matters but in recent times, US National Intelligence is negatively affected by a drift towards a ‘post truth’ world. This involves Political campaign communication rhetoric that promotes an agenda, rather than a debate of factual news. Media trends are manipulated by these agendas and the analytics and trends are then pitched as a fact.
In turn, people emphasise what they see posted, then like and share their opinions on a topic. Their opinions may be devoid of fact or truth, but that is irrelevant to what is seen as ‘popular.’ This is a new reality. In this case, technology has got ahead of itself in social media, by unintentionally helping to promote this outcome while promoting their services.
Needless to say, our collective cultural intelligence can be manipulated by this. Manipulated in such a way that public opinion may be affected to benefit 3rd Party group, institutions, elections or countries. The New Yorker reported that the Russian Military Commander, Gerasimov wrote that “wars will be fought with a 4 : 1 ratio of non military to military measures”. This is to subvert the political landscapes of enemies.
We know that bias is persuasive, but not necessarily ethical, honest or accurate. Algorithms are directed to affect your preferences to predict your choices. The more you post or interact on social media, the easier it is to predict your behaviour and most importantly, the easier it is to predict your choices. This helps the owners of the media platforms using these algorithms, to sell your data to people. Some of the data is valuable, especially when there are more than half a billion users registered with a personal profile.
Buyers could vary between those that want to mine this data, to sell their analysis at a profit and those that want to harm you. Many tools and techniques are used to keep us hooked into our posting about activities, people, purchases, opinions and events – either in words or images. As with any relational database, data may be filtered, clustered, queried for patterns and trends on a micro or macro level. Obviously, our collective data tells many stories about us as individuals and as groups.
When we add hacking to data platforms, we run the risk of having our data or worse, our money, stolen. Cybersecurity experts tell us that countries, institutions, communities and individuals are at risk daily. Consequently, security agencies such as those led by General Hayden find their brief and their remit constantly changing as this form of ‘cyber terrorism’ evolves.
Dossiers on people or projects may now be assimilated fairly easily. The rationale for integrating the information in the file would depend on the motives behind compiling it. Bias and fake realities are increasingly dangerous to narratives, especially when national security is considered. Powerful evidence may be selected, edited, manipulated, reformatted or photoshopped in favour of any argument.
People understandably are easily fooled by unscrupulous hidden persuaders and scammers. Naive, experienced, meticulous or not. In addition, if information supports a person’s bias, then that person often readily believes it. It becomes almost impossible to discredit the information or change the person’s mind. Hence, the blind loyalty some voters in the 2016 US elections, gleefully and ignorantly displayed. Media messages (using botnets) would be created to feed that base.
Cleverly, bots are placed for and against arguments to avoid detection, as obviously biased information would be a giveaway. Also, it supports the perpetrator’s ultimate goal, of divide and rule. Arguments then ensue on social media. Hayden calls this convergence that messes with our heads and divides society. It’s not collusion he says, but we need to decide if its corrupt or not.
Does convergence make us nationally less or more safe? Do we have the intelligence to deal with this and guide us back to a fact based objective reality? – once known as the truth. The danger of fake narratives is that just as they can be brazenly untrue, they can be powerfully influential if the messages resonate with the bias of core voting groups. This increases complexities, especially divide and rule and that of influencing people who are undecided or confused. Sometimes this can be so effective, it overturns the balance of power and makes a process such as an election, unstable and opinions malleable.
Made up facts are notorious for benefiting dangerous ideologies such as Nazism, Fundamentalism, Racism and Fascism. History tells us that these ideologies have easily entered the minds of world leaders. This mostly ends up in stifling or negating dialogue and promotes ignorance, risk and conflict. Fact based institutions get attacked and so does fact based objectivity through nothing less than confusion, division, exhaustion and boredom. All good for inertia. We all know that if good people do nothing, then bad things happen.
So with a backdrop of this scenario, wars and terrorism increasingly will involve subversion, espionage, propaganda and cyber attacks. The New Yorker claims that our home front landscapes have changed significantly. Enemies they say, now aim to increase chaos into our culture, raising the potential for armed conflict, making foreign intervention likely, increasing the risk of civil war and humanitarian catastrophe. Today, these tactics seemingly have more power than weapons. Take Libya, Ukraine and Syria as examples.
In the case of the 2016 US elections, the top 10 strategic questions that come to mind are:
- Who colluded with whom in social media, for whose benefit during the 2016 US elections and why?
- How many social media platforms actually knew that they had security breaches and were they able to defend them successfully?
- How many intermediaries / influencers knew that they were assisting others to fund an election data breach and also knew, what the data would ultimately be used for? Are their laws and enforcement in place to prosecute the perpetrators?
- To whom was election data sold and what precautions were taken to prevent the buyer from using it unlawfully or reselling?
- What evidence is available on social media platforms being hacked to influence users / members decisions in any way?
- Similarly, are the database hacking techniques learnt from the elections (top tier) now being used to hack the data from national institutions (second tier) ; private companies (third tier) and individuals (fourth tier?) What protection is being put in place?
- How robust and successful are our cybersecurity measures?
- Are our security strategies more than adequate to deal with the relentless botnets planted to affect what is trending and most visible on our media?
- Are there sufficient resources and skilled people to deal with this security problem?
- How much influence is there by foreign countries regards national security, via our national intelligence? Is it worse than is being reported?
Regards the answers to the questions above, they apply equally to any country. The paradigm of the US elections is merely used in this story, as a single example to illustrate this. When we further consider the merits of Michael V Hayden’s arguments, no doubt we will source other narratives, other ideas and criticisms.
We would all benefit too, from hearing your views on how the media, business and government affect our intelligence gathering to ensure our personal and national security.
So too would a discussion on what we carelessly put into social media and a discussion on how we can change our habits, would also be useful. As would a discussion about what we could do to push back for transparency as to what controls are in place to ensure that social media platforms, government, other media houses and institutional business are brought to account.
We’d all relish your constructive input. Join us, please.