Let’s be honest. All of us in the cybersecurity community think of ourselves, more or less (and more often more than less) as technocrats. We’re masters of that sterile domain in the ether where everything boils down to sterile ones and zeros (or qubits). We speak in tongues, our conversations a tent-revival glossolalia made up of technical terms, acronyms and pseudo-military jargon unintelligible to mere mortals. (H/T to Sam Sacks; Fiction: Into the Darkness With Don DeLillo) In doing so, we draw boundaries between ourselves and the plebes who just don’t get it. And we like it that way.
Except, in choosing to live our cloistered cyber existence, we’ve forgotten that cybersecurity is about information security, and that the most important information confidentiality, integrity, and availability guarantees are not those that take place across silicon, copper, and hafnium but those that apply to the wetware between the ears of the approximately 7.8 billion sentient, bipedal, carbon based, Terran life forms with whom we share the planet. The relative impact of the ability to steal, manipulate, and deny information across a microprocessor pales in comparison to the impact of the ability to influence wetware and shape what people perceive as truth. People may become perplexed or frustrated when their computers don’t work or when the document that said “zig” yesterday says “zag” today. People clamor for war (the boots-on-the-ground kinetic kind that turns buildings into rubble and people into bloody pulp, not the antiseptic cyber-ninjas-dueling-in-the-ether kind) when what they understand as truth is effectively manipulated.
And folks, we are living through one of the most ruthless, unrestricted, and effective information warfare battles the planet has ever seen right now. Don’t believe it? As of March 4, 2022, 74% of Americans polled supported the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine (www.reuters.com-poll). Just so that we’re all clear on what that means, it’s an act of war. It means that the US of A sends its highly trained, capable, young men and women to shoot down airplanes flown by (hopefully less capable) people in Russian uniforms. That’s armed conflict. Against a nuclear power that has recently upgraded its strategic alert status. For context, since 1945, enormous amounts of American blood and treasure have been devoted to deterring and avoiding conflict with that same nuclear power.
So what changed? Two things:
First, without commenting one way or the other on the righteousness of either side in the war in Ukraine, it’s pretty safe to say that the Ukrainians are now the unchallenged Olympic gold medalists of propaganda and information warfare. Neither of these is pejorative; in fact, they are exactly what countries at war should be doing. It’s war, and overmatch in any way it can be achieved is the name of the game. Here’s just one example. This video, posted on Twitter, lionizes the Valkyries of Kiev,” women fighters dedicated to killing the occupier: https://twitter.com/i/status/1503531525618475010 It’s gripping, inspiring, and not unlike the yellow journalism that helped launch the Spanish-American War and the British propaganda about the “rape of Belgium” in 1914, and helps to create a powerful emotional furore demanding military action. Against a nuclear power. In a war where, potentially, no vital U.S. national interests are at stake.
The Russians, however, have finally upped their information warfare game. In a clever twist on “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” on March 15, 2022, the Russian government imposed sanctions on American officials including the President, Secretary of State, Defense Secretary, CIA Director, the White House press secretary, the President’s son, and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Notably absent is anyone from across the aisle. While less stirring than the Ukrainian efforts, this is a fairly transparent, but possibly effective, effort to capitalize on the tribalism to which American politics, and the body politic, has descended over the last decade.
Next, America is at the most informed but least educated time in its history. Huge portions of the electorate receive the information that shapes their outlook from outlets that are little more than sociopolitical echo chambers that not only confirm what they already believe or want to believe. This shaping (information integrity and availability anyone?) is effective because the country has deprecated in practice the learning of objective facts. Facts, pleasant or unpleasant, have one sterling, immutable attribute: Amass enough of them and you have a wetware filter that enables the sound assessment of incoming information and the foundation of rational decision-making prior to any action. The acquisition of a broad base of knowledge, from all perspectives, is the single most effective counter to the minute-by-minute integrity and availability attacks, from all directions, on your wetware.
How does one acquire such a knowledge foundation? It’s simple, but not easy. Cybersecurity professionals often speak about the need for STEM education. We should also be speaking about the need for lifelong liberal arts education that creates a well-rounded citizenry. Turn off the TV, pick up a book on history, political science, sociology, economics, or some other subject on which you’re not as knowledgeable as you should be. And in doing so, start contributing to a real defense against the information war for your mind.
Build it right!