Information warfare and neuro-weaponry
26 Sep 2019|

The parameters of contemporary conflict, as ASPI’s Tom Uren noted recently, are shifting. Transformations in the character of warfare have always attracted varying levels of attention and opposition, and plenty of hubris. In general, the national security, intelligence and defence community has muddled through. Some of that’s been due to the best combination of analytical rigour, intuitive talent and a wisdom that only experience and time can bring. But, as Andrew Davies has pointed out, some of it’s due to blind, random luck.

One aspect of the current shift that Australia’s security community should be paying attention to is developments in the application of cognitive neuroscience to national security. The landmark US study on this topic was the National Research Council’s Emerging cognitive neuroscience and related technologies, published in 2008. A comprehensive overview was provided in the book Mind wars by Jonathan D. Moreno, first published in 2006 and updated in 2010, which was followed by a number of other excellent studies by other authors. And since 2007, the annual conference organised by the US Department of Defense’s Strategic Multilayer Assessment program has brought the national security and cognitive neuroscience communities together for wide-ranging discussions.

The insights of the cognitive neurosciences over the past two decades have been rich and enlightening. Many of them will be used in pursuit of furthering human wellbeing. But many, of course, will be employed in the everchanging means by which human beings make war. A ‘neuro-weapon’, as described broadly by James Giordano, is anything that accesses the brain to contend with others. Defence dual-use neuro-technology has been the subject of numerous DARPA and IARPA research programs for years now.

Using the tools of neuro-weaponry involves the three A’s—access, assess and affect. For a long time most have intuitively thought of accessing the human brain in terms of direct proximity—sticking things inside or aiming things at the human skull and tinkering. This is a misconception. Insights into cognitive processes have suggested ways to achieve the three A’s at a distance. One of the fundamental enablers here has been the advent of the digital age—acting as connective tissue, substrate or medium through which effects are propagated.

The constant connectivity provided by the internet and mobile devices, combined with the attention-based economic models that now dominate internet platforms, has since the mid-2000s accelerated societies to a state of hyper-connectivity unprecedented in human history. Contrary to early hopes, nothing about global connectivity is inherently emancipatory.

What the digital substrate amounts to is access to the human brain at a distance. As more has been learned about the neurophysiology of cognitive states, much has been gleaned from the deluge of data produced by the now ubiquitous practice of ‘lifelogging’ underpinning much of the digital human–computer interface that makes up our daily lives. DARPA’s Biological Technology Office studied these processes under its ‘Narrative networks’ and ‘Social media in strategic communications’ projects, among numerous others.

In the commercial space, the engineering of human–computer interaction has been a growth industry for two decades. Every interaction people have with computers, particularly computers connected to the internet, is taking place in a zone of cognitive manipulation. There are very few neutral or benign interactions—opportunities for cognitive exploitation and control are built into the way we built the digital age. It is exploitable by design, and that’s a huge problem.

Awareness of this shift is growing inside Australia’s security agencies. Those at the front line of contemporary conflict in the defence organisation have a sharpening understanding of the imperative to act. What the shift to the cognitive domain reveals, however, is that the previous orientations towards vying for information in the electromagnetic spectrum and in the human domain, as episodic and separate lines of effort in support of lethal effects delivered on the conventional battlefield, will be insufficient.

Contending in the cognitive domain, in which the whole of Australian society is situated, will require a coordinated effort and alignment of strategic intent across the whole of government, as retired major general and former senator Jim Molan writes. Meanwhile, we face an adversarial environment in which unscrupulous, agile and imaginative actors are investing in the ways and means of cognitive warfare at an accelerating rate.

What mustn’t be overlooked in this unfortunate turn of events is the foundation of the society Australia is aiming to defend. Open democracy is based, more than anything else, on conventions—expectations about how people interact with one another and with the state. The fabric of these conventions is trust. The same goes for a middle power like Australia in its international interactions.

Trust is a strategic resource, not an auxiliary luxury. The world of digitally manipulative cognitive warfare is profoundly complex. Effects vary—side effects and accidents are impossible to control. Interventions in complex human systems involve deep uncertainty and should be approached with extreme caution. In the haste to react, the risk of undermining the very thing we are aiming to defend is real. Which would amount to doing the adversary’s job for it. There are ways and means of acting defensively in the digital age. Many of them have little to do with technology.    

Adversarial information operations aimed at sowing discord and disruption in open societies create a narrative signature that can be modelled and mapped as it transits the digital terrain. We currently have the technology to identify and track these signatures, but we are yet to put it to full use. Full control of the narrative in the digital terrain is, however, a fantasy. Open societies like Australia’s can pursue denial of hostile narratives transiting cyberspace without harbouring hubristic expectations about ‘winning’ the cognitive contest.

We already know what the fabric of open society is made of: human relationships. Understanding how these are being warped and transformed by digital technologies, with or without an adversarial narrative attached, is the key to democratic resilience. A little-acknowledged strategic capability of great importance for Australia as it navigates its digital future will be the transformation of our current societal approach to the development and deployment at scale of technologies with immense implications for the lives of individuals, families, communities and the nation.