HOWTO: Fight Cyberwars and Lose

If you bring a math nerd, a grunt and a used car salesman to a discourse analysis fight, you’re going to lose.

The US has lost the first cyber war between nation states. Russia took on the Americans at their own game, on their home turf and completely destroyed them.

KGB showing the Americans how to cyber

Russia sought to advance their national interests by engaging in a conflict that was waged purely in the informatics sphere — the theatre of combat operations was entirely cyber. They won. The results of the conflict was a clear and decisive Russian success in multiple ways:

  • Russia schooled the Americans at their own game in their own backyard, which is kind of a big deal
  • Putin established a position which gives him continuing advantage: a weak divided insular America; a weakened NATO; the only cyberwar theory that has been proven to work; seriously undermined the resilience and effectiveness of his geopolitical opposition, while bolstering his own image.
  • Practical experience at “cybering the fuck out of an election.” The sort of thing that’s useful if your “turn ons” include offshore accounts, judo and degrading the EU’s capacity to oppose your national interests. Unrelated: upcoming elections in the EU — France (2017), Germany (2017), Norway (2017), Sweden (2018), Finland (2019).
  • Putin has demonstrated an effective cyber capability to influence elections — against the country literally founded on elections with the (well deserved) reputation for being the best at cyber. This is what the pros like to call a credible threat. “Nice little election you got there, be a shame if something happened to it.”
  • Russia’s intelligence services are (apparently) the only Services that have improved their cyberwar tradecraft as a result of this conflict. They took a Cold War era theory for defeating technologically superior adversaries, planned and executed a lot of cyber ops based on it, and in the execution refined their playbook.
I feel sorry for the NSA. They never realised the real treasure isn’t influencing the US presidential elections, but the cyber tradecraft you learn along the way…

Superior Concepts Beats Superior Software

A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points — Alan Kay

I learned a great deal watching the Russians operate, I doubt there will be a future conflict waged purely with the cybers that will leave as much data available to the public again.

This surprised everyone — even the Russians.

EU is putting some money together to create a website that will fact check news stories to see if they are “fake news.” Apparently the major strategic blunder in the US election cyberwar was the lack of snopes.com, factcheck.com, politifact.com, etc. Every single national newspaper did fact check stories on Trump. Those “five Pinnochios” scorecards are not effective. There are a number of reasons:

  1. Influence Operations don’t require false information, they can (and often are) based on a kernel of truth. The veracity of info is irrelevant because The Vision and the narrative that leads there is what people are buying.
  2. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” The value of the lie is of only tactical importance, not strategic. By the time the fact check sites have debunked the lie, the liar has moved on. Too little, too late. (Plenty of examples, the erroneous tweet with 20k engagements and the 4hrs later correction tweet with 200; media orgs that append “corrections” to the bottom of a story such as WIRED’s “This is the ISIS OPSEC Manual” article that turned out to be a security guide for Palestinian journalists written by a Kuwaiti cyber security firm.)
  3. A website that allows people to submit articles for fact checking… have these people ever heard of 4chan, or the Goons? Internet trolls will submit links to be checked. A lot. This is a recipe for disaster in that the trolls actively enjoy what they’re doing (or they’re employed to engage in the activity.) The reason why this is an effective revolutionary methodology is set out in “Rules for Radials”: 6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.
  4. The dismissive negation of terms like “debunked” and “fake news” creates the implicit impression that hundreds, or thousands, of words on a subject can be viewed through a binary lens. This is garbage, the world is nuanced — not black and white. Reporting can be distorted, one sided, fabricated, exaggerated, incorrect because it is based on bad data, and so on. There are any number of ways to craft a malicious story (e.g. journalist asks weirdly worded question with a yes/no answer, if the source says “yes”, then the journalist can technically attribute the quote to source.) There are also any number of factual errors, misinterpretations, or mistakes, that get into articles for totally innocent reasons (i.e. are not the product of a malicious attack.) Terms like “debunked” or “fake news” allow the adversary to find a single flaw in an article and then claim that the entire article is “fake news,” and has been “debunked.” Those terms are inherently binary, but the real world isn’t. This language literally creates a vulnerability that is actively exploited by the opposition — “That was debunked!” and “This is fake news!!”. One mistake is sufficient to dismiss an entire book (someone called a MOSSAD memoir “fiction” because the author threw in some disinfo personal details about his real name, life, wife, country of residence, etc. If you can’t trust a MOSSAD operative to give factual information about his real name, how can you trust anything else in the book??)

The way to counter a narrative based on a lie is to immediately call out the liar, and counter attack them. Refuse to be distracted by arguing whether their false statements are lies, misstatements, “alternative facts,” or other bullshit terms for bullshit. Refute them immediately and stick to the original narrative / line of questioning.

I’m seeing this constant lame surrender from US TV interviews where the Trump spokesman lies, the presenter tries to press them (gently) with “well, that isn’t exactly the case, what you said is not accurate”, and the response is basically just a slippery slide of distractions, more lies, and attempts to change the topic. Then the TV presenter says, “ok, lets move on”… no! Don’t move on. Tell them they are lying and stay on target. For example Jeremy Paxman:

This is what the strategic goal of the Trump administration is when dealing with the media. Its just misdirection and a denial of attention attack (everyone has an attention budget, if you can force them to spend it all on trivialities via misdirection, you win.)

Every minute that CNN spends defending its newsgathering operation is a minute spent away from the kind of original reporting that caused the administration to throw a hissy fit in the first place. It’s like if someone called you an asshole, and you responded by earnestly lecturing them on anatomy.

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See also: American Snoper, an analysis of how the US elections were cybered.