The Russian attacks on the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the country’s continuing election-related hacking have happened across all three dimensions of cyberspace — physical, informational and cognitive. The first two are well-known: For years, hackers have exploited hardware and software flaws to gain unauthorized access to computers and networks — and stolen information they’ve found. The third dimension, however, is a newer target — and a more concerning one.
This three-dimensional view of cyberspace comes from my late mentor, Professor Dan Kuehl of the National Defense University, who expressed concern about traditional hacking activities and what they meant for national security. But he also foresaw the potential — now clear to the public at large — that those tools could be used to target people’s perceptions and thought processes, too. That’s what the Russians allegedly did, according to federal indictments issued in February and July, laying out evidence that Russian civilians and military personnel used online tools to influence Americans’ political views — and, potentially, their votes. They may be setting up to do it again for the 2018 midterm elections.
Some observers suggest that using internet tools for espionage and as fuel for disinformation campaigns is a new form of “hybrid warfare.”Their idea is that the lines are blurring between the traditional kinetic warfare of bombs, missiles and guns, and the unconventional, stealthy warfare long practiced against foreigners’ “hearts and minds” by intelligence and special forces capabilities.
However, I believe this isn’t a new form of war at all: Rather, it is the same old strategies taking advantage of the latest available technologies. Just as online marketing companies use sponsored content and search engine manipulation to distribute biased information to the public, governments are using internet-based tools to pursue their agendas. In other words, they’re hacking a different kind of system through social engineering on a grand scale.
Old goals, new techniques
More than 2,400 years ago, the Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu made it an axiom of war that it’s best to “subdue the enemy without fighting.” Using information — or disinformation, or propaganda — as a weapon can be one way to destabilize a population and disable the target country. In 1984 a former KGB agent who defected to the West discussed this as a long-term process and more or less predicted what’s happening in the U.S. now.