Is the Australian Society Ready for Mass information Warfare?

Elliot Parker
Australian Defence Force

Personal data is a significant component in information warfare and Australians must take ownership of their personal data to be resilient against adversarial influence and information operations.

Attacks are increasingly prevalent within the cybersecurity realm, and their impact extend throughout the community (Bonyhady, 2022) – in private and governmental institutions. Australia is still recovering from six major data breaches within a span of five weeks (Thompson, 2022), targeting major Australian companies such as Optus, Woolworths, Telstra, Costa Group, Dialogue, and Medibank, and Latitude. For clients of some of these companies, a significant portion of their sensitive personal information has been released online and sold for profit.

These vulnerabilities are consequences of the internet becoming more prevalent in our everyday lives and an increasingly connected society. We have become reliant on technology as our primary source of information and communication. This reliance can been exploited by state or non-state malicious actors, not only for profit but also to degrade society’s ability to collaborate for national defence in times of conflict. Hence, everyone’s personal data is a significant component in information warfare. To increase resilience, Australians and the whole society must take ownership of their personal data. Moreover, educating the society on the impact of these vulnerabilities and changes in cultural practices are necessary to increase resilience and minimise the fallout from cyber-attacks.

Personal data refers to any information regarding an individual that can be attributed to them. It may describe their interests, family connections, work, or beliefs/affiliations, amongst other information. Personal data is important to develop an effective information campaign, as it allows for an actor to better understand individuals, their vulnerabilities, and how they can be targeted and exploited.

Information Operations

Information operations involve the collection of physical or digital information about an individual or group as well as the use of such information for dissemination that intend to directly influence views and behaviours. While traditional ‘kinetic’ warfare similarly intends to influence or coerce, information warfare can be differentiated through operations in the information space (Garman, 2021). For example, 'airdropping' pamphlets out of an aircraft (Central Intelligence Agency, n.d.) to encourage a military to stand down or inserting 'fake news' within social media (Lee, 2020).

Historically, effects based on individualised information and targeting a group were mutually exclusive. Now with the mass amounts of personal data on social media, open-source intelligence (OSINT) can be enhanced to improve an operator’s awareness of the targets’ information. In addition, vulnerability of personal and private data via cyber-attacks have given malicious actors the ability to enhance their approach and craft more believable information.

Access to personal data allows an information operations actor to understand how to best influence their target, enabling individualised targeting at a mass scale. This access also allows for deeper profiling of individuals to better group and target vulnerable micro-demographics such as oppressed, minority, activist groups, or key high-stake individuals such as defence personnel, community leaders or those working for the government. Attributes such as levels of power or access to sensitive information can be exploited.

Social media already offers an incredible service to advertisers. With the free nature of social media, users are enticed to sign up for connectedness without understanding the true cost of exposing themselves to information operators. Given the amount of information shared, the engagement of different types of media, and their connections, advertising companies can also target micro-demographics to maximise the effectiveness of advertising. Individualised advertising can influence users to feel an artificial need for a product, and use psychology to make them impulsively act on this, rather than stop and think. Cambridge Analytica is an example of this in practice (Lewis & Hilder, 2018).

How will this be used?

Within the context of national defence and whole-of-government picture, information operations transform into information warfare, where adversaries seek to degrade society’s ability to collaborate for national defence. Information operations might precede and support a kinetic attack, which can be in a form of an attempt to scatter the population (Jenkins, 2023) and distract key or high-stake individuals mentioned earlier through threats or misinformation (Berthiaume, 2015).

Historically, Operation MINCEMEAT in World War 2 was a plan conceived by the British Intelligence to deceive and confuse Axis forces on the true target for the Allied invasion of Sicily, misleading key decision makers to focus forces away from the real landing point (Imperial War Museum, n.d.). When applied to contemporary settings, personalised data allows for an adversary to target high-stake individuals in national defence and decision making to degrade and overwhelm intelligence and news mediums in order to confuse the narrative and distract from the main effort (Arceneaux & Harman, 2021). Social media alone has proven to be an effective tool to exacerbate the spread of misinformation in conflict zones (Bacio Terracino & Matasick, 2022), which alongside news manipulation can sway the narrative to confuse what is happening in a conflict and why it is even occurring (Wilbur, 2021). When information warfare is in effect, high-stake targets will be pre-occupied and will reduce their ability to make decisions and focus on national defence thereby increasing the vulnerability to allow for physical forces to attack with less resistance.

Either way, it's clear that information warfare will be more prevalent in geo-politics and future conflict, and personal data will continue to leave individuals vulnerable to exploitation and influence.

How can we prepare our society?

Unfortunately, the general response from recent data breaches seems more like annoyance rather than a realisation of the vulnerability of the information space. Whilst responsibility lies on organisations to improve cybersecurity defences and incident response, it is clear that cultural change is required to protect our society against adversarial influence and information operations. This can be achieved through education on cybersecurity awareness (Arceneaux & Harman, 2021), as well as providing resources to help individuals more easily take ownership of the amount of personal information they disclose online.

Services such as news, cloud, and other niche utilities have often been the victim of data breaches through poor security practices or simply their scale of data collected. As a society, we need to be more considerate before sharing information or registering for a service online. If the service is free, we are probably the product and we need to be aware of our ‘digital footprint’. While most legitimate organisations do not collect personal data for unethical gain, their systems are still vulnerable to attackers. Hence, we need to be aware of the amount of data shared, where it’s stored, the legitimacy of the site and organisation, and if there are any connections to foreign influence (Baker-White, 2022). We need to always assume that computer systems of organisations are not fool proof. Such system can be compromised, and it is therefore important to educate individuals to take ownership of their personal data. Perhaps a counter-intuitive way to achieve ownership is by anonymising their digital footprint where possible. This could be through a pseudonym or completely anonymous and random email and username. In the event of a data breach, the anonymised information would be harder to attribute than consistent email addresses and usernames across multiple sites and as such less valuable.

Following basic cybersecurity principles will also create a more educated and resilient society. This can be achieved through normalising encryption when communicating with others via end-to-end encryption in mobile phone applications such as Signal and Google’s Rich Communication Services (which also uses the Signal encryption protocol). It is important to note that interacting across the internet has already come a long way with the normalisation of Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) encryption for HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) web transfers. These make intercepting data as an attacker-in-the-middle much more difficult, through obfuscating the data while in transit to its intended recipients. The best defence to an information campaign is a society that is educated on how to detect misinformation and influence as well as individuals taking ownership and consideration of what they consume online. The majority of misinformation spread across social media is spread by other individuals (not bots) (Vosoughi, Roy, & Aral, 2018). If individuals are aware that something is trying to influence them, they are able to consciously stop it.

While it is unlikely that a large shift can occur across the broader population’s cybersecurity awareness quickly, it’s possible to achieve a general awareness of personal data being second nature for those who have an online presence. For this to be possible, there must also be responsibility on organisations and services to uphold their obligations to data security – for example, Telstra’s developments in SMS spam/scam filtering (Penn, 2021) as well as more discussion around the issue in media, government, and individuals. For national defence specifically, organisational awareness training and cultural change to expand upon existing physical security practices can effectively develop a better understanding of data security.

Conclusion

Information Operations are becoming more prevalent in society, and modern reliance on the internet poses a threat of misinformation and influence. As such, greater education and awareness of how personal data can be exploited is important to building a more resilient society.
 

Comments

Robert Fraser (not verified)

Excellent article, Elliot, and well done covering the more salient issues that impact our strategic approaches to information security. The discussion on 'preparing our society' covers important points, and I would like to add to this by way of the following:

For some time, we have seen new and emerging societal threats by way of false emails, SMS, etc that are designed to induce the receiver to undertake certain actions which, in turn, may trigger the undesired affect of opening and exposing the users personal data and information to the attacker.

More recently, we are seeing a marked evolution and sophistication in the methodology being used by attackers. These attacks, primarily aimed at the general society, are displaying the hallmarks of extensive, ongoing research and development by the attackers (or possible State actors in supporting them) which delivers emails, SMS, etc which now have the complexities, design and supporting information that makes them barely discernible from legitimate providers.

In the past, we have seen these attacks where the presentation and data and information within the message or email packet was easily identified as false. These attempts were widely ridiculed for their poor presentation, incorrect spelling, and discrepancies in the victims cultural representation. But this has all changed. The attackers have learnt from these criticisms and have continually harnessed there craft through improvement in their attack toolkits, greater understanding of the weaknesses in their original approaches to structure and content as well as the society awareness campaigns developed by Government to educate people in what to look for to identify attacks. As we discover vulnerabilities, so to do the attackers and they address their attacks accordingly with enhanced remedies to their toolkits.

In our current era, the identification of false data and information attacks has many complexities. Societies have people from all walks of life, highly intelligent and attuned to the risks of exposure, that still succumb to these attacks because of their sophistication and technically advanced approaches, even passing some initial inquiries by the victim to verify the email source. The weaknesses in our technological society are no longer the elderly. Victims have included extremely tech savvy people, prominent, well educated victims who have been unable to discern these attacks from authentic data received.

I believe that these attacks will continue to mature, learning as they fail, with the aim of delivering the most authentic looking data and information attacks possible. Individually, we remain vulnerable and while some of us have high levels of confidence in our ability to identify these attacks, we will continue to be tested, and perhaps surprised, as these newer, highly sophisticated attacks continue to plague society into the future.

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