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Cyberspace, Targeting, and The Human Firewall

GhostNet is still getting an extreme amount of press coverage. The idea of a giant malware surveillance network definitely has a futuristic ring to it, and whoever came up with the name "GhostNet" definitely had Hiro Protagonist, Willis Corto, and Maj. Kusanagi in mind. But the problem with the "GhostNet" image is that it encourages us to forget cybercrime's crucial human element. The objective is information produced by humans, for which the machines are merely conduits. And the means of getting to that information is always either force or fraud.

Chinese information warfare theory, for all of its illusions to Sun Tzu, is intensely focused on the notion of "informatized" war. When reading about hacks like GhostNet, there is a great temptation to lapse into a kind of cybernetic dualism that posits a separation between the floating world of information and everyday "meatspace." In this light, Russian information warfare theory, more tied into human psychology, may prove more illuminating to practice. The Russian focus is on the use of technology as a means of manipulating the target's orientation--the mindframe and normative organizing system from which he perceives the world and makes decisions.

Timothy L. Thomas, the Foreign Military Studies Office's tireless chronicler of OPFOR information operations, wrote an interesting article in Parameters about Russian information military theory. He aptly titled it "The Mind Has No Firewall." Thomas' major point was that while US IO theory seeks to dominate information systems, the Russians see the human mind itself as an information-processing system to be hacked.

Richard Szafranski expands on this idea in his chapter on "Neocortical Warfare" in Networks and Netwars:

"Neocortical warfare is warfare that strives to control or shape the behavior of enemy organisms, but without destroying the organisms. It does this by influencing, even to the point of regulating, the consciousness, perceptions and will of the adversary's leadership: the enemy's neocortical system. ..[I]t strives to present the adversary's leaders--its collective brain--with perceptions, sensory and cognitive data designed to result in a narrow and controlled (or an overwhelmingly large and disorienting) range of calculations and evaluations. The product of these evaluations and calculations are adversary choices that correspond to our desired choices and the outcomes we desire."

Szafranski also argues that our own decisionmakers are "critical nodes, the targets of neocortical warfare, and they must be prepared for the adversary's assaults." If human beings are nodes within nodes of a system, then the penetration of computer networks (especially those organized a certain issue or cause) for espionage is not really all that far removed from penetrations of human networks, social engineering, or influence operations directed at specific individuals. This approach to psychological operations and cybersecurity de-exoticizes cyber-influence and allows us to conceptualize it within the "meatspace" spectrum of OPSEC, counterintelligence, and deception operations. While there are important differences between digital and analog deception, the key is the human element.

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