Cognitive Warfare, Cyber Physiological Operations (CyOp), Psychological Warfare, Semantic Weapons, Counter-Influence Activities, Information Peace Keeping (IPK)
In the north-west of St. Petersburg, stands as the northernmost skyscraper on Earth. The local media call it the “Eye of Sauron” - constantly looking to the West, a dark source of malign influence, misinformation and lies while controlling the narrative to the East. It is the headquarters of the Russian Internet Research Agency a state-sponsored troll factory owned by Putin’s lieutenant oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In the era of strategic competition, the war on truth will be the greatest challenge of our lifetime. Cognitive warfare requires a tight integration of offensive cyber and influence operations. Defending the truth requires deep-knowledge of adversarial capabilities, tradecraft and intent, that is gained principally through global cyber threat and open source intelligence. Furthermore, active cyber defence with end-attribution is critical to precise targeting, the application of effective counter-measures and achieving outcomes in both cyber and cognitive domains simultaneously.
A 1993 white paper on information warfare by Dr, Robert Garigue in the Canadian Department of National Defence, discussed semantic warfare and introduced the concept of information peacekeeping - connecting the concepts of synaptic and semantic warfare.
Since then, the Internet-of-Everything (IoE) and social media has created a frictionless surface (Metaverse) between physical, cyber, human terrains an persistent synthetic worlds.
The challenge of Information Peace Keeping (IPK) is how to use the power of the cyberspace and leverage the global information grid and its content, to act with effect within new social networks, political spaces and to safeguard truth systems. If cyber physiological operations (CyOp) can influence the human terrain and information warfare is about destroying knowledge and truth, or hacking networks, ‘wetware’ and belief systems; then the prime objective of information peacekeeping is to help us understand the processes that validate what is ultimately trustworthy knowledge and to engineering countermeasures that counter-radicalization and foreign influence in the democratic process or military deception. Information theory talks about the medium and the message. Equally important to cognitive warfare is the technical means. Cyber is the modern-day battleground of ideas and influence.
“It has become in some ways almost a tool of choice to disrupt a democracy, to sow dissent, to cause people to question even fundamental facts like who won the election and is this vaccine safe, or does it work. In some ways, it may be far more effective, it’s certainly less expensive, to launch a government-sponsored disinformation campaign than it is to build a hypersonic missile, and we have some countries that have the resources easily to do both.” - Microsoft President Brad Smith
NATO needs active cyber defence and information peacekeeping capability to project power and influence in cyberspace and counter-cognitive warfare by aggressive states. The war on truth will be the greatest challenge of our lifetime.
A Re-imag[ed] Canadian National Security Strategy recognizes that “insidious threats of disinformation and cyberattacks from both state actors and criminal conspiracies, are themselves new national security threats that must now be addressed.”
At the NATO Innovation Hub in June-Nov 2020, François du Cluzel, cautioned that “cognitive warfare [is being] used by adversaries to undermine trust, and to weaken, interfere with, and destabilize a target population, institutions, and States in order to influence their choices.”
As an example, the Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation highlights “Russia, also exemplifying an authoritarian and nationalist model of governance, has proven its willingness to engage in disinformation campaigns designed to undermine political stability and erode trust in democratic processes and institutions.”
A global and mail article provides multiple examples of disinformation during the pandemic
Russian Gerasimov doctrine combines military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and other tactics for the purpose of achieving strategic goals, through the theft of intellectual property, misinformation, and deception.
Russia represents a multi-domain threat that holds North America at risk, projecting power globally through informationized warfare. State-run troll farms of the Internet Research Agency have been implicated in antagonizing polarized discussions online, undermining liberal democracies, interfering in elections, stirring-up the anti-vax movement, climate change deniers, sowing fractured narratives, and violently attacking anti-doping organizations, and spraying a fire hose of falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation, which intend to erode, disrupt and degrade trust in the democratic system, sabotage industrial growth of Canada and undermine fundamental Canadian values and quality-of-life.
Note: The Internet Research Agency (Trolls from Olgino), is a Russian company engaged in influence operations on behalf of the Russian military and state security and intelligence services. It is linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and based in Saint Petersburg. A United States grand jury indicted the Internet Research Agency, on charges of violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes. The US conducted cyber operations against the organization in 2018 that disrupted its operations.
Russia may be the dark master of disinformation, looking to re-establish itself as a major world player in a multipolar world, but China seeks to gain increasing economic and political advantage using malign influence to weaken adversaries' resolve to confront it. China’s Three Warfares Strategy encompasses media or public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare. This presents a tangible direct threat to Canadians.
In its July 2021 report on Foreign Interference Threats to Canada’s Democracy, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) warned of “disinformation and foreign interference activities and undermine Canada’s democracy” and “constitute a threat to the safety of Canadians and to Canada’s security.”
“Canada’s national security is directly impacted by elements of current Chinese policies, including China’s conduct of espionage, aggressive use of cyber power, willingness to engage in hostage diplomacy, and efforts to interfere with our democracy and society.” - Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation
In an extensive investigative report by Disinfowatch “the Chinese government has repeatedly demonstrated its readiness to advance its interest in Canada through the use of disinformation, threats, intimidation, and influence operations. Such interference threatens to undermine the integrity of Canadian democracy and erode public trust in our democratic processes and institutions.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) published a warning to Canadians that if they elected a Conservative government, Canadians should expect “a strong counter-strike and Canada will be the one to suffer.”
When Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were politically kidnapped detained, the Chinese ambassador in Ottawa blamed the Canadian government of “white supremacy”
A report on China’s Propaganda and Disinformation Landscape concludes that “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not copying Russia’s playbook when it comes to propaganda and disinformation—they’re authoring their own” with the benefit of advanced technology and human resources.
The Chinese have a “well-funded, overt state-run print, radio, and television media; a network of public-private partnerships; and a new generation of social media influencers.” The Chinese state media is the “central kitchen” (中央厨房) model of content distribution content across media outlets and social media platforms.
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is directly overseen by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) and targets audiences abroad. Canadian diaspora are “firmly in the crosshairs of the UFWD” for influence, intimidation and violence. Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) is active in Canadian universities, tasked with supporting political objectives. The People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) is tasked with conducting influence operations and psychological operations.
“China continues to grow as a covert actor in the computational propaganda space” through private sector partnerships. Companies like Spamouflage, Onesight, Nothing Technologies, Urun Big Data Services, Chinaii and others are implicated in the government’s censorship and propaganda campaigns, amplifying propaganda and disinformation abroad using semantic botnets and sockpuppets, The Chinese government also demands that every business “resolutely control anything that seriously damages party and government credibility and attacks the political system”.
The CBC highlights how the Chinese threatens Canadian citizens.
Another Globe and Mail reveals intimidation tactics by China in Canada.
There has been observed Chinese government interference and influence during the Canadian federal election, publishing and promoting disinformation narratives on various platforms
Showed a coordinated influence operation targeting Chinese-Canadian voters.
The Wall Street Journal chronicles the danger of Chinese Influence Operations against diaspora-communities including those in Canada.
There is an extensive network of Chinese government influencers active on Twitter and Facebook. “Democracy’s voice is at risk of being drowned out by China’s media juggernaut.”
The Globe and Mail reported on Huawei’s campaign to influence Canadian public opinion. “Huawei Canada maintains a dossier of people (politicians, university professors, lawyers and business people) it calls key opinion leaders in this country who it believes could help the Chinese telecom equipment maker” and help with influence campaigns including the insertion of Chinese technology into Canadian critical information infrastructure.
“Disinformation (defined as intentional mistruths) and misinformation (defined as false information that may nevertheless be conveyed in good faith) are increasing threats to both Canada’s national security and democracy. Disinformation is being used by authoritarian governments to spread divisions in democracies. This is obviously a danger to both Canada’s national security and democracy given its diversity and reliance on increased migration for a healthy economy.” - Reimagining a Canadian National Security Strategy, Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation, Nov 2021.
Referring to military challenges, NATO describes Cognitive Warfare as the “Invisible Threat” and warns “adversarial attempts to manipulate human behaviour will present an enduring challenge to Allied nations’ defence and security.” Military analysts explain “this emerging threat of modern warfare goes beyond controlling the flow of information. Cognitive warfare seeks to change not only what people think, but also how they act. Attacks against the cognitive domain involve the integration of cyber, disinformation/misinformation, psychological, and social-engineering capabilities. Cognitive warfare positions the mind as a battle space and contested domain. Its objective is to sow dissonance, instigate conflicting narratives, polarize opinion, and radicalize groups. Cognitive warfare can motivate people to act in ways that can disrupt or fragment an otherwise cohesive society. Ensuing disorder can influence decision-making, change ideologies, and generate distrust among Allies.” NATO reports suggest “the new operating environment for decision-makers [must] engage their ability to both detect and [act in advance of] attacks on the cognitive domain.”
As we in the West see cyber as a technical domain, of ones and zeros, our adversaries think of cyber as ABC’s - a domain of knowledge and influence. Cognitive or cyber warfare is integral to informational and hybrid Warfare.
A 2020 NATO-sponsored study on cognitive warfare characterizes cognitive war as “weaponization of brain sciences,” which can hack the human wetware of an individual by exploiting human vulnerabilities and then socially engineer behaviour.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) considers disinformation designed to intentionally mislead, as spread primarily through social media, a serious threat to the nation’s critical infrastructure, private industry and government.
“The most critical infrastructure is our cognitive infrastructure, so building that resilience to misinformation and disinformation, I think, is incredibly important” - CISA Director Jen Easterly
In the near dystopian future, human thought will be the contested domain and every controlled brain a weapon. Not unlike the movie Inception that portrayed the implantation of ideas into a target's subconscious as a form of cognitive warfare. NATO literature says that “the goal of cognitive warfare is for an adversary to destroy their target from within, rendering them unable to resist, deter, or deflect – thereby allowing the perpetrator to follow through with their own agenda.” Like a fifth column of Manchurian Candidates working clandestinely to subvert a country’s interests from within - unaware that they are under the influence of an external agent. Unconvinced? We have already seen sabotage of 5G cell infrastructure by susceptible Canadians based upon disinformation propagated by Russia.
“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. A 2015 Neurohacks Psychology article “how liars create the illusion of truth” by amplifying the frequency and coverage of disinformation. The goal of which build an organic audience willing to re-propagate the lie.
One poignant example is the tired narrative spun by Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador to Canada who, with a straight face, tells Canadian media:
"China, we don't do this kind of thing, you know, spying, or electronic monitoring.”
This is an unbelievable statement from the same government that engages in political kidnapping of Canadians, and whose military, intelligence and corporations have been caught red-handed spying on Canada on numerous occasions.
The Chinese military strategist. Sun Tzu (544BC) wrote the book Art of War on spying and deception saying famously “spies are useful everywhere” and “all warfare is based on deception.” The evidence of Chinese spying on Canadian industry is incontrovertible. China's National Intelligence Law says Chinese organizations and citizens "shall support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work." And they do.
Society, industry and individuals remain proxy targets of cognitive attacks, which bypass military defences. Public defence reports predict “future conflicts will likely occur amongst the people [hyper connected] digitally [rather than geographically] in proximity to hubs of political, [military] and economic power.”
Western military alliances recognize “cognitive-warfare strategies are ever more prevalent and far-reaching in the 21st century due to [science and technology].” Cognitive warfare starts in the information sphere and is powered by hyper-connectivity. Big data, artificial intelligence, social networks and 5G represent vital high ground for cognitive warfare. Our digital addiction makes us very susceptible to this form of war. It is an attack on an individual’s processor, the brain.
Du Cluzel, in his paper on cognitive warfare, suggests that this new warfare domain incorporates key disruptive technologies, which mix a “very dangerous cocktail that can further manipulate the brain. Cognitive warfare is not only a fight against what we think, but it’s rather a fight against the way we think, if we can change the way people think.”
NATO innovation discussions say that “trust is the target” and adversaries use cognitive warfare “tactics that serve to destabilize public institutions and influence public or government policy allow discontent to manifest and spread within a society, fostering specific ideologies and behaviours.”
To emphasize, there is a close-coupling between cyber network and cognitive layers. Every modern influence campaign uses cyber to propagate the messaging. Conversely, most cyber software attacks are enabled by social engineering – a wetware attack against the users.
Hacking powers influence.
Conventional cyber security holds to the notion of secure perimeters, walled gardens and firewalls. However cognitive attacks against the integrity of the data and veracity of information can jump air gaps in every secure network. Cognitive warfare has no geographic borders or time boundaries. The metaverse will place humans at the centre of an immersive persistent virtual World.
Meanwhile, combatting cognitive warfare has being largely a manual and haphazard endeavor playing whack-a-troll on social media networks or dropping leaflets from the sky. While conventional cyber security (principally ineffective) is being left to system administrators.
Andy Bonvie, a commanding officer at the Canadian Special Operations Training Centre explains “Cognitive warfare is a new type of hybrid warfare for us. It is the most advanced form of manipulation seen to date. We need to look [beyond] the traditional thresholds of conflict [to] cognitive attacks. We need to adjust [our] actions and our training accordingly to be able to operate in these different environments.”
One of the outstanding defence challenges has been linking the cognitive (semantic) domain, the cyber and physical domains in a coherent fashion, to provide defence-depth and threat reduction. Detecting a compromise of the mind is more difficult that finding an advance persistent threat (APT) in one’s system. And we know how exceedingly demanding that is. The vast majority (99%) of advanced cyber attacks are never detected.
Bad actors take extraordinary precautions to hide their activities, identity and methods, often conducting cognitive warfare using back-stopped aliases, non-attributable (untraceable) networks, double fast-flux networking, sock puppets and sematic botnets harvested from victim machines. Conventional security doctrine, plans and standards do not address the tactics used in cognitive warfare.
Canada is an open society and permissive target that is highly susceptible to suggestion. Cyber security programs are one-dimensional and move at glacial pace.
Meanwhile, actors use artificial intelligence (AI) to generate fictitious personas to generate
authentic narratives and influence at the speed-of-cyber.
Unraveling this subterfuge requires multisource intelligence and deep analytics supported by the very best talent, technologies, tradecraft, and the ability to hunt clandestinely across (network and human) domains. Moreover, chasing after street-smart adversaries actors requires operational security, stealth and sophisticated ancillary infrastructure.
As the report Reimagining a Canadian National Security Strategy put it “In the end, we cannot legislate our way out of a misinformation/disinformation problem.”
One must be prepared to get into a cyber knife fight with adversaries in the cognitive domain.
Canadian Innovation Nexus
Marie-Pierre Raymond, defence scientist and innovation portfolio manager for the Canadian Armed Forces’ Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security Program clarifies “when we speak about hybrid threats, cognitive warfare is the most advanced form of manipulation seen to date. Cognitive warfare also heavily overlaps with artificial intelligence, big data, and social media, and reflects the rapid evolution of neurosciences as a tool of war.”
“The modern concept of war,” according to a NATO study, “is not about conventional weapons but about soft power and influence. Victory in the long run will remain solely dependent on the ability to influence, affect, change or impact the cognitive domain.” U.S. Major General Robert H. Scales writes “victory will be defined more in terms of capturing the psycho-cultural rather than the geographical high ground.” If kinetic power cannot win the battle then cyber operations, deception, psychology and related behavioural and social sciences “stand to fill the void” through influence by design. Cognitive warfare as been positioned as “the crucible of data sciences and human sciences.”
Cognitive warfare necessitates the defence of human psychology including intimate of social relationships. However, the conventional approach to cognitive warfare has been to consider it to be uniquely a social media problem when in fact the solution is requires multi-domain expertise and capabilities.
One cannot effectively detect, defend or deter cognitive attacks without a strong open source intelligence program. Threat hunting, end-entity attribution and the enumeration of the technical networks behind the information campaign are also necessary before drafting a counter-narrative to a disinformation campaign.
Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) says to “expect a more muscular response to disinformation and misinformation campaigns targeting the nation’s cognitive infrastructure.” The agency intends to “work with our partners in the private sector” to do all it can to “slow down or arrest the torrent of disinformation and misinformation flooding the nation’s communication channels.”
The answer to cognitive warfare will be rooted in skilled orchestration of human-lead technology-accelerated analytics consisting of key components: global Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI), Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT), human experts, active cyber defence, attribution, threat hunting, targeting and the generation of effects with measureable outcomes.
An expert panel recommended “[the Canadian federal government] should make greater use of experts from outside the intelligence community. There should be a common community platform for open-source intelligence (OSINT) and a designated senior official responsible for maximizing the effective use of open sources.” - Reimagining a Canadian National Security Strategy, Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation, Nov 2021.
This solution will require a unified platform and collaborative analytical environment capable of processing big data, common training, private public partnerships and a joint accountability, responsibility and authority framework.
[The government of] “Canada will not be able to combat disinformation and misinformation by itself. It should also be more engaged [with] the private sector to counter misinformation. National security is no longer only a discrete professional pursuit by mandated federal agencies with statutory missions. It is a society wide obligation that authorities must learn to enable on a society-wide horizon.” - Reimagining a Canadian National Security Strategy 2021
Building organic open source programs within closed secret cultures is problematic. Particularly when a mature OSINT industry already exists. Similarly, the private sector has lead the way in counter-radicalization, influence and filtering mis/disinformation on the global stage, at scale, for decades. NATO adversaries outsource disinformation and cognitive warfare.
To paraphrase NATO doctrine, we ought to be concerned about the “the militarization of brain science.” Hence, “Western militaries must work more closely with [the private sector],social and human sciences [to] help the alliance develop its cognitive warfare [defence] capacities.”
The Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation cautions “ensuring the proportionality of both government and corporate responses to disinformation and misinformation requires careful attention to the range of alternative policies. There is a need to address disinformation while also respecting competing values including privacy and fundamental freedoms. In some cases, digital blocking and takedowns may be justified.”
Ultimately, Canada needs to take the moral high ground in cognitive warfare using cyber deception operations, disrupting disinformation networks, exporting universal values, and influence globally, but should not engage in black propaganda or public disinformation.
The brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century. Canada’s answer to cognitive warfare is perhaps Information Peace Keeping (IPK).
Potential areas of focus for NATO include:
§ Identification of when NATO forces and/or their Allies are under a cognitive attack;
§ Verification of the scale and nature of the attack;
§ Quantification and/or level of the success of the attack;
§ Mitigation techniques, tools and measures to counter a cognitive attack; and
§ OSINT Support for executive decision-makers.
Three stage solution:
· Deep investigation and decomposition of a cognitive warfare campaign by adversaries against NATO nations including a intelligence estimate, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield/Intelligence Preparation of the Operating Environment (IPB/IPOE) and Target Systems Analysis (TSA) of key hostile influence networks of interest;
· Conduct a Red Cell assessment against NATO military member including an attack surface analysis, resilience and susceptibility of full-spectrum cognitive warfare attack, with a statement of capability deficiency;
· Design, test and trial effective counter-measures including counter influence, cyber deception, threat hunting, adversarial pursuit, targeting, threat reduction activities and active cyber defence for cognitive warfare in a virtual cloud environment, at nation-scale.
About the Author
Dave is a thirty-year veteran of cyber defence and intelligence, currently Chief Intelligence Officer at Sapper Labs Cyber Solutions, and Lecturer with Professional Development Institute at the University of Ottawa. Dave was co-chair of interdepartmental committee on information warfare. His father was Chair of the NATO committee for Psychological Warfare.