22 June 2015

Cyber warfare overshadows 'netwar' concept putting US at risk, new ODNI paper argues

June 15, 2015

While many government officials are focused on cyberwarfare following a spate of high-profile cyberattacks including the recent Office of Personnel Management data breach allegedly by Chinese hackers, a new paper states that another concept called "netwar" – a psychological force that's increasingly related to cyber – deserves more attention.

The paper (pdf), released June 11 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, defines netwar as "intentional activities [meant] to influence the domain of human perception via either overt or hidden channels, in which one or more actors seeks to impose a desired change upon the perception of another actor, in order that this change facilitate second-and third order effects of benefit to them."

Specifically, the term, coined in the 1990s and redefined in this paper, refers not to physical force but to elements of psychological force such as propaganda, although netwar perpetrators might use cyber systems and tools to carry out their objectives.

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"Would any national security scholar or practitioner dispute that at least some components of netwar – for example, deliberate combinations of diplomacy, propaganda, and manipulation of media – seem to be growing in the modern geopolitical space?" poses the paper's author, Robert Brose, who is lead for futures and capability development at ODNI.

"And do we not recognize an increasing potential for delivery of psychological campaigns to our doorstep, and the mobilization of 'dissident or opposition movements,' whether at the behest of state or non-state actors, via the Internet?" he adds.

Two countries frequently blamed for cyberattacks – China and Russia – provide perspective on netwar defense and response. Citing examples including Sun-Tzu's famous "Art of War," Brose points to such teachings that show how multiple nonviolent mechanisms of attack can affect opponents and how the goal is not absolute victory.

Instead, "'the accomplishment of objectives through persistent persuasion, dissuasion, and manipulation is preferable to a resort to conflict in the physical domain,'" according to the paper.

In early June, OPM officials announced that Chinese hackers accessed personal data of about 4 million current and former federal workers.

In Russia, military doctrine separates into "information technical" elements akin to cyber warfare and "information psychological" ones, according to the paper. And, as recently as 2013, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov wrote about the advantages of using "'nonmilitary means'" to achieve political goals. Dubbed the Gerasimov Doctrine, the document exemplifies thinking in that country, Brose writes.

China and Russia have also been mastering the use of the so-called United Front Theory – a strategy of shifting alliances according to whatever ideology is most favorable at the time – and legal warfare, which aims to instill doubts "'about the legality of adversary actions, thereby diminishing political will and support and potentially retarding military activity,'" Brose writes.

The information age puts the United States at increased risk of netwar because even as the free flow of information is crucial to culture and commerce, it creates vulnerabilities to "tailored deceptions veiled as gossip, market preference, opinion, or social interaction," Brose notes. But netwar can be fought in three main ways, he adds: 
Cyber-defense organizations could identify netwar actions in open content. 
Tools could reconstruct, track and attribute netwar activities. 
Cyber-defense agencies should be ready to respond to netwar attacks with various tactics. 

"Fortunately, the antidote to netwar poison is active transparency, a function democracies excel in," Brose adds.

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