An Assessment of Information Warfare as a Cybersecurity Issue

An Assessment of Information Warfare as a Cybersecurity Issue
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Justin Sherman is a sophomore at Duke University double-majoring in Computer Science and Political Science, focused on cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, and cyber governance. Justin conducts technical security research through Duke’s Computer Science Department; he conducts technology policy research through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy; and he’s a Cyber Researcher at a Department of Defense-backed, industry-intelligence-academia group at North Carolina State University focused on cyber and national security – through which he works with the U.S. defense and intelligence communities on issues of cybersecurity, cyber policy, and national cyber strategy. Justin is also a regular contributor to numerous industry blogs and policy journals.

Anastasios Arampatzis is a retired Hellenic Air Force officer with over 20 years’ worth of experience in cybersecurity and IT project management. During his service in the Armed Forces, Anastasios was assigned to various key positions in national, NATO, and EU headquarters, and he’s been honored by numerous high-ranking officers for his expertise and professionalism, including a nomination as a certified NATO evaluator for information security. Anastasios currently works as an informatics instructor at AKMI Educational Institute, where his interests include exploring the human side of cybersecurity – psychology, public education, organizational training programs, and the effects of cultural, cognitive, and heuristic biases.

Paul Cobaugh is the Vice President of Narrative Strategies, a coalition of scholars and military professionals involved in the non-kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism, defeating violent extremism, irregular warfare, large-scale conflict mediation, and peace-building. Paul recently retired from a distinguished career in U.S. Special Operations Command, and his specialties include campaigns of influence and engagement with indigenous populations.

Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  An Assessment of Information Warfare as a Cybersecurity Issue

Date Originally Written:  March 2, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  June 18, 2018.

Summary:  Information warfare is not new, but the evolution of cheap, accessible, and scalable cyber technologies enables it greatly.  The U.S. Department of Justice’s February 2018 indictment of the Internet Research Agency – one of the Russian groups behind disinformation in the 2016 American election – establishes that information warfare is not just a global problem from the national security and fact-checking perspectives; but a cybersecurity issue as well.

Text:  On February 16, 2018, U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 United States presidential election [1]. Beyond the important legal and political ramifications of this event, this indictment should make one thing clear: information warfare is a cybersecurity issue.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Russia created fake social media profiles to spread disinformation on sites like Facebook.  This tactic had been demonstrated for some time, and the Russians have done this in numerous other countries as well[2].  Instead, what’s noteworthy about the investigation’s findings, is that Russian hackers also stole the identities of real American citizens to spread disinformation[3].  Whether the Russian hackers compromised accounts through technical hacking, social engineering, or other means, this technique proved remarkably effective; masquerading as American citizens lent significantly greater credibility to trolls (who purposely sow discord on the Internet) and bots (automated information-spreaders) that pushed Russian narratives.

Information warfare has traditionally been viewed as an issue of fact-checking or information filtering, which it certainly still is today.  Nonetheless, traditional information warfare was conducted before the advent of modern cyber technologies, which have greatly changed the ways in which information campaigns are executed.  Whereas historical campaigns took time to spread information and did so through in-person speeches or printed news articles, social media enables instantaneous, low-cost, and scalable access to the world’s populations, as does the simplicity of online blogging and information forgery (e.g., using software to manufacture false images).  Those looking to wage information warfare can do so with relative ease in today’s digital world.

The effectiveness of modern information warfare, then, is heavily dependent upon the security of these technologies and platforms – or, in many cases, the total lack thereof.  In this situation, the success of the Russian hackers was propelled by the average U.S. citizen’s ignorance of basic cyber “hygiene” rules, such as strong password creation.  If cybersecurity mechanisms hadn’t failed to keep these hackers out, Russian “agents of influence” would have gained access to far fewer legitimate social media profiles – making their overall campaign significantly less effective.

To be clear, this is not to blame the campaign’s effectiveness on specific end users; with over 100,000 Facebook accounts hacked every single day we can imagine it wouldn’t be difficult for any other country to use this same technique[4].  However, it’s important to understand the relevance of cybersecurity here. User access control, strong passwords, mandated multi-factor authentication, fraud detection, and identity theft prevention were just some of the cybersecurity best practices that failed to combat Russian disinformation just as much as fact-checking mechanisms or counter-narrative strategies.

These technical and behavioral failures didn’t just compromise the integrity of information, a pillar of cybersecurity; they also enabled the campaign to become incredibly more effective.  As the hackers planned to exploit the polarized election environment, access to American profiles made this far easier: by manipulating and distorting information to make it seem legitimate (i.e., opinions coming from actual Americans), these Russians undermined law enforcement operations, election processes, and more.  We are quick to ask: how much of this information was correct and how much of it wasn’t?  Who can tell whether the information originated from un-compromised, credible sources or from credible sources that have actually been hacked?

However, we should also consider another angle: what if the hackers hadn’t won access to those American profiles in the first place?  What if the hackers were forced to almost entirely use fraudulent accounts, which are prone to be detected by Facebook’s algorithms?  It is for these reasons that information warfare is so critical for cybersecurity, and why Russian information warfare campaigns of the past cannot be equally compared to the digital information wars of the modern era.

The global cybersecurity community can take an even greater, active role in addressing the account access component of disinformation.  Additionally, those working on information warfare and other narrative strategies could leverage cybersecurity for defensive operations.  Without a coordinated and integrated effort between these two sectors of the cyber and security communities, the inability to effectively combat disinformation will only continue as false information penetrates our social media feeds, news cycles, and overall public discourse.

More than ever, a demand signal is present to educate the world’s citizens on cyber risks and basic cyber “hygiene,” and to even mandate the use of multi-factor authentication, encrypted Internet connections, and other critical security features.  The security of social media and other mass-content-sharing platforms has become an information warfare issue, both within respective countries and across the planet as a whole.  When rhetoric and narrative can spread (or at least appear to spread) from within, the effectiveness of a campaign is amplified.  The cybersecurity angle of information warfare, in addition to the misinformation, disinformation, and rhetoric itself, will remain integral to effectively combating the propaganda and narrative campaigns of the modern age.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.

Endnotes:

[1] United States of America v. Internet Research Agency LLC, Case 1:18-cr-00032-DLF. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/file/1035477/download

[2] Wintour, P. (2017, September 5). West Failing to Tackle Russian Hacking and Fake News, Says Latvia. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/05/west-failing-to-tackle-russian-hacking-and-fake-news-says-latvia

[3] Greenberg, A. (2018, February 16). Russian Trolls Stole Real US Identities to Hide in Plain Sight. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/russian-trolls-identity-theft-mueller-indictment/

[4] Callahan, M. (2015, March 1). Big Brother 2.0: 160,000 Facebook Pages are Hacked a Day.Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2015/03/01/big-brother-2-0-160000-facebook-pages-are-hacked-a-day/



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