Cyber Space – Tool for Influence Operations

Cyber Era and Information Warfare

In the aftermath of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Balakot are strikes of February 2019, and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) riposte of 27 February began a propaganda and perception war. The battle had the public of both the nations not only as an audience but also active participant in the information war that followed. This was many steps ahead of Indo-Pak Cricket wars. Information operations is an integral part of cyber warfare. today rhetoric and imagery are as important as weapons as decisive elements in warfare. They are essential for constructing the good and the bad, legitimatizing one’s actions and influencing the events.

Era of perception management is now here as a part of war. Interestingly drawing the line between preparations for cyber war and the actual fighting is difficult. So this is a gray area between war and peace. Cyberspace has been a battleground in all recent major conflicts, yet it is difficult to say how and to what extent this activity influenced the conflicts’ results. The intelligence communities actively use cyberspace to collect and manipulate information. Information operations (IO) not only influence public opinion; they also influence what we hold as true in any relationship that involves information exchange. The higher the level of political decision making using information, the more substantial the effect of information manipulation will be.

Cyber Era and Information Warfare 

The cyber era has widened the battlefield to cover entire societies, and has made the global public into an active participant. Today, controlling information flows is very complex and difficult. Any form of information, fact or rumor, spreads much quicker and more freely in the cyber domain. Information operations, the vector for manipulating perceptions, are integral to cyber warfare. Manipulating perceptions is being combined with intelligence and cyber espionage, military deception, and disruptive or destructive cyber operations to advance a nation’s goals. Subtle information operations try to persuade the target audience to view this information in a positive light. Perceptions determine how each actor chooses to act. If one can affect the opponent’s policy goals by manipulating perceptions, it can have a great influence over the battlefield. Recently Russia fought and won an “information war” during the run-up to the Crimean vote1. Information operations exist not only to advance one’s own message, but also to block or disrupt the flow of opposing ideas.

Manipulating Public Opinion

Social Media Soldiers and Fact Check

“Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation” by Samantha Bradshaw3, concludes that cyber troops are a pervasive and global phenomenon. ‘Social media soldiers’ are today actively advancing national goals on social platforms associated with the free exchange of information among private citizens. Social media has provided opportunities for ‘citizen journalism’, and they have no less weight than the major content producers and established media personalities. Unfortunately any information, irrespective of the source may be manipulated or given a tilt. Many websites and cyber handles have now come up for ‘fact-checking’, so as to help the public know the truth, but they are not being able to keep pace. Social Media may not influence or change the outcome of the on-going conflict, but it puts perception pressure on decision makers, puts doubts in the minds of public and affects the morale. Some countries like Pakistan are skillful in successfully automated trolling though the use of  ‘chat bots’. 

Psychological Warfare 

It is a broad term for directing the emotional aspect of strategic communication. When specific information involving psychological components is delivered to a defined target audience, this audience experiences a shift in its emotions and outlook. As a result, there is a shift in the target audience’s behavior, tarnishing its ability to reach the goals it has set for itself. It could also create conditions for the ending fighting or of surrender, encouraging defection and so forth. Information has the potential to evoke an emotional response in those exposed to it, especially if this information comes from war zones. Psychological warfare operations can be executed both during war and peace. 

Influence Operations 

For a successful influence operation, the planning includes, goal creation, target audience definition, scheme outline, group leader’s influence, information sources, intellectual attitudes, alternative information sources, advocating change, and quantity of transmitted information. Disseminating specific information to a distinct target audience to control its responses is important. Influence operations are usually identified with technological capabilities from the world of computers, but in effect, each of its operations that combines elements of trickery and deceit  would be considered an act of Information Warfare (IW).

Fifth Generation Networks

5G cellular network technology which has started unfolding since late 2018 provides much faster broadband access. The first fairly substantial deployments were in April 2019. As it replaces current 4G networks, it promises to accelerate cellular data transfer speeds from 100 Mbps to 10 Gbps and beyond. 5G radio hardware is already in the market. In 5G, the ‘air latency’ target is 1-4 milliseconds estimated to be 60 to 120 times faster than average 4G latencies. 5G is crucial for Internet of Things (IoT). Large quantity of new spectrum will have to be added for 5G. The frequency band most widely being used for 5G in this range is around 3.5 GHz. Meanwhile there are concerns related to interference with passive remote sensing and weather and earth observation satellites. US DoD has cautioned harmful impacts to national security due interference. Because of espionage fears on foreign users by Chinese equipment vendors, several countries have taken actions to restrict or eliminate the use of Chinese equipment in their respective 5G networks. Also it had stoked fear that 5G radiation could have adverse health effects. Belgium and Switzerland had blocked a 5G trial because of radiation laws4. 5G will become a faster tool for IW. 

Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Weapons

Nations which have greater resources, are developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) based cyber weapons. Elsa Kania, an American expert on Chinese military talks of Chinese efforts to transform ‘informatized’ way of warfare into ‘intelligentized’ warfare by using AI5. The AI based cyber weapons would be far more destructive as they could manoeuvre to exploit vulnerabilities or even would be able to create new vulnerabilities.

International Conflict in Cyberspace

A Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report of September 20186 has brought out how information technology is reshaping international security. It is helping new resurgent powers to upset the status quo in the existing world order. Internet, which was to create a world without borders and without external interference has now become a tool for external interference and conflict. Cold War was bipolar, but new conflict is multi-polar. Wars between big, heavily-armed states are expensive and risky, so cyberspace has become the preferred battleground, taking advantage of the ‘grey area’ that is neither peace nor war. Internet lends itself to coercion, anonymity, deniability, and has instant global reach. Cyber-attacks can produce effects similar to kinetic weapons. The strategic goal is to affect morale, cohesion, political stability, and, ultimately, diminish the opponent’s will to resist. The intent will be to degrade ‘informational advantage’ in warfare by attacking communications and ISR assets and capabilities, to slow and damage decision making and operations, and to create political uncertainty, turmoil, and dissent. The ‘rules of war’ themselves have changed significantly, nonmilitary options have come to play a greater role in achieving political and strategic goals.

Responses to Information Warfare and Influence Operations (IWIO)

Sun Tzu, wrote that “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”, and that best suits IW and IO. By definition, IWIO take place without kinetic violence, and are below any threshold of armed conflict. There are no noncombatants. Every individual in the adversary’s population is a legitimate target. Cyber-enabled IWIO strongly leverage the capabilities of modern computing and communications technologies. When an adversary uses kinetic weapons, a country usually knows that it has been attacked, as it may cause death or destruction. A cyber campaign may not be detected if its effects were intended to be kept secret. The rapid emergence of large numbers of automated social chat bots promulgating similar political messages could signal the start of a concerted campaign. Investigation could point to national affiliations of parties operating such bots. When legitimate institutions are under attack, it is an indication. Coordination among intelligence-gathering agencies will improve capabilities for detecting IWIO campaigns. Defensive measures against IWIO require measures to help people resist the operation of IWIO weapons targeted at them, and measures to degrade, disrupt or expose an adversary’s arsenal of IWIO weapons. 

International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)

First step to degrade, disrupt or expose the arsenal of weapons being leveraged against a target population, is to run fact checkers at organizational level. IFCN has been set up to promote excellence in fact-checking and accountability in journalism7. Responsible media must make commitments to nonpartisanship and fairness; transparency of sources, and funding. Face book is already committed to providing fact-checking services to Face book users. Face book has also introduced a button that makes it much easier for users to signal that they regard a given story as fake news. Google has decided to prevent its advertisements from appearing on fake news sites, thus depriving them of revenue. For political advertising on Face book are required to include information about who paid for them. In future IWIO threats would focus on forensics to detect forged email, videos, audio and so on. Visual and audio information associated with specific events once had dispositive value for authenticating events, conversations and other exchanges, but with advanced Photoshop and audio and video editing software widely available this assumption of certitude is simply no longer valid, and the authenticity of images and recordings will be increasingly debated rather than automatically trusted. 

United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) 

USCYBERCOM was created in mid-2009 at the Nation Security Agency (NSA)8. It cooperates with NSA networks. While originally created with a defensive mission in mind, it has increasingly been viewed as an offensive force. On 04 May 2018 USCYBERCOM was elevated to the status of a full and independent unified combatant command. It operates on two levels: tactical, and strategic. On the tactical level, it sends teams of IW experts to interface with globally positioned U.S. joint task forces, in accordance with the requirements of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On the strategic level, It serves as an IW authority for all U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) agencies. 

Russian Military Approach

Russian military has adopted an approach by which tactical military field operations, and political, diplomatic strategy across various international forums are integrated and interwoven components of the systemic concept. Cyber warfare and IO are combined efforts that include systemic attacks on digital networks, psychological warfare, fraud, misdirection and disinformation. Russia’s goals contributes not only to weakening the opponent, but also to empowering Russia’s image. The heavy reliance on IW stems from Russia’s acknowledgment of its military and economic inferiority, in comparison to the U.S. and China. 

Israeli Approach

Israel has three military entities operating in the fields of strategic communications and IO with various populations. The Center for Consciousness Operations was established in 20059, and coordinates with the Operations Branch and Military Intelligence Directorate. In Operation Cast Lead, the center mounted psychological warfare in the Gaza Strip against Hamas fighters and civilian populations. Most of these messages were delivered through newscasts broadcast across different types of media. Israeli C4I Corps is primarily tasked with launching IW against the enemy. The PR branch of the IDF manages operations directed towards various overseas audiences. The branch initiates and organizes visits to Israel by key figures (foreign military personnel, government officials, academics, etc.), coordinates PR missions for a variety of overseas conferences and helps pen studies overseas written about the IDF. These activities are performed under the premise that creating a pro-Israel stance overseas will propel foreign leaders to adopt a friendlier stance towards Israel. Israel supports websites, Face book pages, video segments, radio broadcasts and Twitter feeds, all in accordance with IW guidelines.

China Major Cyber Threat

After the Chinese cyber-attack on Google’s computer systems in December 2009, China has been classified as a major Cyber threat. Hundreds of thousands have been employed in this state sponsored Cyber warfare. All are specially trained and most are English proficient.  People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 6139810 has been very active in cyber espionage and cyber-attacks. The unit is located in Pudong area of Shanghai. Pudong also happens to be location of the main undersea cable between China and the United States. They have reportedly stolen hundreds of terabytes of data though an extensive network of computers spread across the world. The attack on Google was essentially to steal intellectual property rights, and assess and use the near 500 million Google user passwords. Major targets are strategic industries, defence establishments, weapon and military technology companies. China’s IWIO efforts are focused primarily on its own population and Chinese emigrants. Chinese propaganda has persuaded the world of its inevitable economic ascendancy. Chinese doctrine for the military use of cyber operations is more conventional. It focuses on disrupting weapons performance and command functions. China has undertaken cyber operations to gain access to U.S. weapons systems to understand their operational limits, copy them, and to prepare to interfere with their operations in combat. China works on cyber operations combined with electronic warfare, anti-satellite attacks, informational campaigns and other unconventional tactics and weapons.

Chinese Electronic Hardware Threat

India’s heavy reliance on imported equipment and mobile apps pose a serious security challenge. Indian intelligence agencies have warned that China was collecting data from India through popular Chinese mobile apps. The Chinese Xiaomi smart phones and notebooks are suspected to be transmitting personal data to the servers located in China. China is exporting devices equipped with backdoor surveillance tools. Huawei and ZTE are notorious in this sphere11. China also purchases companies dealing with computer network with this intention. The Chinese company Lenovo, which bought IBM’ PC business in 2004, was reportedly shipping laptops with ‘superfish’ malware which undermines basic security protocols. The threat from imported equipment would significantly increase if we continue to rely on imported equipment for 5G network as well as that may have back door surveillance system based on Artificial Intelligence.

Pakistani and Jihadi Approach

Pakistan seems to have realised that for a Cyber attack one does not talk about “death by 1000 cuts” or attacking critical infrastructure to produce a “cyber Pearl Harbor”. Since Pakistan is at a deep disadvantage in terms of conventional military power, it leverages asymmetric options like terrorism, and IWIO supplemented by AI. They create realistic fake videos, or “deep fakes,” which appear authentic. Use India’s internal social cleavages, which heightens such a risk. Pakistan has mastered the craft of proxy war over the last three decades in Afghanistan and Kashmir. A group of Pakistani hackers, who specialize in surveillance software have been hired by the Pakistani ISI to create spyware versions to target key government officials in India. Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) supports jihadi terror organisations to use cyber space for collection of sensitive information and spreading misinformation to change the rational thought process of youth. ISI is using smart-phone malware embedded gaming, music apps to spy upon military personnel. Pakistan military is also using radio and TV channels for spreading anti-India propaganda. Jihadi groups are using websites to incite the youth to take to arms. Most communal incidents in India were preceded by intensified circulation of fake videos to incite people to resort to violence. 

Cyber Attacks on India

According to a study by CERT-IN the cyber-attacks in India12 almost 40% originated from China, 25% from US, 13% from Pakistan and 9% from Russia. The attacks from Pakistan and North Korea are on the increase. The targets were financial networks, Government websites, power plants oil refineries, oil and gas pipe-lines, and telecom and defence networks. There are large ‘leakages’ of huge data from MNCs which are increasing in scale and frequency. The Cambridge Analytica firm was suspected to have harnessed data from almost 87 million Face book users, out which over half a million were Indians, and leveraging them for political campaigns. Similarly, Microsoft has routinely shared the financial details of Indian bank customers with intelligence agencies in the United States. The Chinese website of official newspapers like Global Times and People’s Daily contain anti-India articles. 

India’s IWIO Strategy

India is gradually realizing the significance of IWIO but a lot needs to be done in this field. India established the National Information Board (NIB) in 200213 and is chaired by National Security Adviser. The NIB is the highest policy making body for cyber security and IW and periodically reports to the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by the Prime Minister. The Indian Armed Forces are also represented in it. However, the NIB’s capabilities for countering IWIO needs to be enhanced significantly. An independent National Fact Checking Organisation needs to be established for not only checking facts in a transparent manner but also to formulate a code of principles for fact checking which would help media to check authenticity of news. The need for making citizens aware of misuse of social media platform to exploit our fault lines and cultural differences is important. India must find indigenous telecom solutions and equipment to ensure its safety. An effective system of providing incentives to Indian telecom entrepreneurs should be established. India needs to devise time-sensitive rapid government response to adversary IWIO campaigns. Immediate steps must be taken to check the narratives built by our adversaries to influence our population and weaken democratic institutions. The NIB must engage best professionals in the field to counter IWIO. It is a round the clock activity. Government needs to work closely with all social platforms and electronic and print media to counter IWIO. There is a  need to make citizens and security personnel aware of misuse of social media platform to exploit our fault lines, and also include this subject in the educational institutes. The newly formed tri-service Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) will work in conjunction with the National Cyber Security Advisor. Its focus will be towards offensive and defensive military cyber-issues. It would include as many as 1000 personnel from all three branches, the Army, Navy and the Air force. The National Cyber Security Policy was adopted by the Government of India in 2013 to ensure a secure and resilient cyberspace for citizens, businesses and the government. DCA is meant to combat the current threat from China and Pakistan. The Agency will have smaller teams, spread around the country. It will position dedicated officers in major headquarters of the forces to deal with emerging cyber security issues. DCA highlights the threat to cyberspace and cyber as a tool of modern warfare. DCA must find indigenous solutions and equipment. There should also be an effective national cyber strategy so that all stakeholders can work as one force.

This Article was first written for Centre For Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS)

Notes

1. https://lithub.com/russia-is-winning-the-information-war/

2. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/daniel_patrick_moynihan_182347

3. http://blogs.oii.ox.ac.uk/politicalbots/wp-content/uploads/sites/89/2017/07/Troops-Trolls-and-Troublemakers.pdf

4. https://in.reuters.com/article/swiss-5g/switzerland-to-monitor-potential-health-risks-posed-by-5g-networks-idINKCN1RT15J

5.https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/June%207%20Hearing_Panel%201_Elsa%20Kania_Chinese%20Military%20Innovation%20in%20Artificial%20Intelligence.pdf

6. https://www.csis.org/analysis/cognitive-effect-and-state-conflict-cyberspace

7. https://accountablejournalism.org/ethics-codes/international-fact-checking-network-fact-checkers-code-of-principles

8. https://www.cybercom.mil/About/History/

9. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/with-eye-on-hearts-and-minds-israeli-army-sets-up-consciousness-ops-1.5888362

10. https://in.reuters.com/article/china-military/chinese-military-force-to-take-lead-on-cyber-space-defence-idINKCN0V71AI

11. https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/2/17310870/pentagon-ban-huawei-zte-phones-retail-stores-military-bases

12. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/cyber-attacks-becoming-more-frequent-in-india/story-8Os6AtCrHzL6QCBinVQuSM.html

13. https://www.medianama.com/2016/04/223-indias-cyber-security-agencies/

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

7 thoughts on “Cyber Space – Tool for Influence Operations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: