We’re not at war — we’re just doing infosec

I read three connected things today: the digital Maginot line, about how we’ve been in a digital “warm war’ for the past few years, why influence matters in the spread of misinformation, and are ads really that bad?.

The first one tells a story that I’ve told myself over the past few years — that the age-old drive to gain territory and power has moved from turning up with weapons and fighting (‘kinetic warfare’) to get other countries to hand them over, to using social media channels to persuade those countries’ people to either welcome the new overlords, or persuade their own politicians to not interfere when their neighbouring countries get overrun.

I’ve sounded warnings because I believe I’ve lived in a uniquely fragile country in uniquely fragile conditions at a uniquely fragile time. I don’t however believe that that’s always going to be the case, and I think the answers to that lie in both past and recent history, and across articles like these three. Bear with me because I’m still gathering my own thoughts (into, amongst other things, a practical book) and hadn’t meant to write so much background yet.

Every country in the world has been trying to influence every other country that it interacts with since before there have been countries: it’s geopolitics. It tries to influence populations: it’s own through politics, others through propaganda and other more benign forms of outreach and image manipulation.

What social media buys an aggressor country is reach and scale. The same thing that lets me chat with friends in Kenya, or you see that not everyone in Peru is living on a farm with 10 llamas also allows anyone anywhere to insert themselves into an influence network in any language on any topic anywhere else on the planet. And there’s the power, right there.

One way to stop playing a game is to step outside of the game. Widespread user-generated content is relatively new: so what’s to stop defending countries from putting up their own digital firewalls, China-style, and collapsing the troublesome parts of the internet on themselves? Perhaps it’s that the entities that are massively powerful have changed, and countries are small in power now, compared to large global companies. And that gets me to a small glimmer of hope. Because those companies’ power is rooted in ad money. And ads are shown to humans. And despite all our globalisation, all our progress, all our ability to buy our Christmas decorations from Norway, I’ve seen the data, and people are still very geographically rooted in their ad clicks. It will be interesting to see what countries do.

It’s also interesting to see what people do. Because without users, a social media company becomes — is Myspace still around? And without people who can be manipulated, an influence campaign is just more conspiracy-laden shouting (how *is* qanon doing these days btw?). I said when I started that I’ve lived in a uniquely fragile country in uniquely fragile conditions at a uniquely fragile time. I think we’re still there, but I’m starting to see signs of resilience that give me hope.

Yes, we have work to do, but FWIW I don’t think we’re at war. I do think we need a new layer of information security and, amongst others, I’m working on tactics, techniques and procedures for that. We’re perhaps at the Cuckoo’s Egg part of the journey, and this is forever work, not a quick set of fixes, but it’s worth it.