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OPINION | Data is New Oil and Human Mind the New Battlefield. India Must Wake Up Now

In information warfare, the battlespace is the human mind. This is where the privacy of an individual intersects with national security. Fighting this battle will require a new paradigm in thought and action.

Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda |

Updated:November 11, 2017, 2:29 PM IST
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OPINION | Data is New Oil and Human Mind the New Battlefield. India Must Wake Up Now
File photo of Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda.
A few days ago, the Army Headquarters took out a public advisory warning about a “deliberate misinformation campaign being launched by vested interests some of which is being initiated from countries bordering our nation.” This is an acknowledgment of the use of social media for what is today considered the most dominant form of warfare — ‘information warfare’. It has been extensively used by our adversaries in Jammu and Kashmir to show the government and security forces in poor light.

Deception, propaganda and misinformation have always been a part of warfare but what is different today is that the tools of information warfare have acquired a new dimension. An integration of massive amounts of data with Artificial Intelligence (AI) has given a significant weapon in the hands of information warriors.

The cost of saving data has been plummeting, with the cost being halved about every 15 months. Now more and more data about individuals is being saved, both by corporations and governments. In his book, Data and Goliath, Bruce Schneier writes that worldwide, Google has the capacity to store 15 exabytes of data. To put it in context, one exabyte is 500 billion pages of text. Bruce also quotes the case of Max Schrems, an Austrian law student, who in 2011 demanded all his personal data from Facebook. After a two year legal battle, Facebook gave him a CD with 1200 pages of PDF. This is how much Facebook knows about you, and it does not forget because it is all saved.

All this big data would be useless unless it can be utilised for decision making and this is where advances in AI have provided the breakthrough. Smart machines mine the data and detect trends, patterns, habits, ideology and desires. These personal characteristics of individuals are being used by corporations to send targeted advertisements to influence commercial decisions.

The same technique is used in information warfare. On November 1, the US House Intelligence Committee released Facebook advertisements bought by Russian operatives to influence the 2016 elections. Washington Post wrote, “The ads made visceral appeals to voters concerned about illegal immigration...African American political activism, rising prominence of Muslims” among other issues. Senator Angus King said, “The strategy is to take a crack in our society and turn it into a chasm.”

Data is the new oil and that is exactly how it is being traded and sold. In the absence of any legal provisions, companies and ‘data brokers’ are sharing and selling personal data. Can this personal data find its way to a hostile government? Last month, the US Army brought out that their troops in the Baltic had reported instances of cell phone hacking. However, more worrisome was the fact the hackers knew personal details of the soldiers. Direct threats against family members of the military can have a negative psychological impact during conflict.

India has its share of political, social and ethnic differences, just as in many societies. In recent times these differences have been magnified as nationalism has taken centre stage. It is difficult to imagine why these fault lines will not be exploited by inimical forces as India enters the election mode in 2018. Looking at examples from the US and French elections, Brexit and the cyber battle during the Catalonia referendum, I think we have no option but to be prepared.

The preparation for this war (and I do not use this word lightly) lies in three spheres — concepts, practices and structures.

Conceptually, our current shortcoming is that we are viewing this issue through a technical prism rather than the broader spectrum of information warfare. CERT and NTRO can technically protect our critical infrastructure but they do not have an equal understanding of the human dimension, which is more strategic than scientific. The Americans, world leaders in information technology, have not been able to prevent a perceived subversion of their democratic process.

Our practices need to improve. The security of personal data is a major concern. The Supreme Court has declared privacy as a fundamental right, but there are no privacy laws to back it up. Even data stored in India is not safe as the owners of our data are the giant technology companies, mostly based in the US and not under our legal control. In September 2017, it was reported that Google has quietly stopped challenging most search warrants from US judges in which the data requested is stored on overseas servers.

A May 2017, report by the Centre for Internet and Society estimated that 135 million Aadhaar numbers could have been leaked from official portals. This was not due to a security breach but due to poor privacy practices.

Our continued reliance on foreign hardware and software is extremely worrisome. There was clear evidence that Cisco systems had been back-doored by the American National Security Agency but the Indian military continues to procure hardware from Cisco. There is a similar story with Chinese equipment in our telecommunication and power sectors. An attempt to introduce an Indian operating system to replace Windows in the Army has been mired in controversy.

In case of a targeted cyber attack on India, there is little we can do except issue advisories. The solutions will have to come from foreign manufactures or developers whose equipment we are using. There is an urgent need to give a fillip to developing indigenous solutions for our critical infrastructure.

And finally, structures. An organisation to execute information warfare would have to be led by the Ministry of Defence, because the threat is mainly from external players. It would be a combination of military planners, specialists from the field of intelligence, government agencies, media and cyber warfare experts. Such an organisation does not currently exist, though the raising of the Cyber Command could fill this gap.

In information warfare, the battlespace is the human mind. This is where the privacy of an individual intersects with national security. Fighting this battle will require a new paradigm in thought and action.

(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)
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