Over Christmas, officials in the United States revealed that US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) was investigating information warfare operations to counter Russian interference in the 2020 United States elections.
Aside from the potential to hack operational technologies, such as voting systems, conducting psychological operations through social media presents an evolution of CYBERCOM’s disruption of the Internet Research Agency troll factory in St Petersburg during the 2018 US midterm elections.
Broadly speaking, this opportunity for the United States to openly draw level with Russia in soft-power focused cyber capabilities is an excellent one.
Given the increasing emphasis placed on co-opting civilian technologies, such as social media to ensure the integrity of democratic processes, it seems odd to decouple operations like these from broader strategic conversations. Yet, that appears to be happening. This presents a glaring strategic error in the conduct of Western states in the other great strategic issue of our time—the China challenge.
Unlike the United States, China has utilised its close proximity to ICT innovation and manufacturing to expand its soft power and offensive cyber capabilities, a particularly ironic point considering the role of the United States in defining much of the open Internet as we know it.
The Lowy Institute’s 2019 Owen Harries Lecture, delivered by the esteemed former American diplomat R. Nicholas Burns, encapsulates this disparity perfectly. Burns highlights four ‘battles’ key to understanding the changing relationship between China and the rest of the world.
1) The struggle for military power in the Western Pacific;
2) The battle for technology superiority;
3) A context for economic and trade supremacy; and,
4) The clash of ideas, systems, and futures that we believe in.
Perhaps evident in his naming of the first battle as a military one, Burns remained preoccupied with a conception of technology limited to the military, including the over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Australia’s own Attack-class submarine project, a project already argued in some quarters to be outdated. Not once was cyberwarfare mentioned in any capacity.
Considering that just days beforehand, an investigation into the hacking of the Australian National University seemed to imply that the attacks almost without doubt came from China, this seemed a glaring omission—one doubly so, considering the emphasis placed by Burns upon collaboration between US and Australian tertiary institutions.
The overwhelming focus was on militarisation, rather than manipulation, of civilian technologies and assets. With regards to technology, Burns was possessed of a strictly hard-power oriented, physical conception of technological development:
“We have to develop the capacity, whether it’s through unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, whether it’s through underwater naval assets, to blunt China’s advantage on conventional weapons.”
All four of Burns’ battles can easily be shifted to focus on co-opting civilian technologies.
States in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community are already aware of China’s moves to use civilian technologies for surveillance purposes—the US Navy banned its personnel from installing Chinese social entertainment app TikTok on government-issued mobile devices in December 2019, due to the potential for the app to surveil devices without user permission.
Similarly, battles for economic and technological superiority concern undersea internet cables and smartphone usage just as much as bleeding-edge stealth fighters . As for a clash of political ideologies, the reconfiguration of global ICT marketsto rely primarily on China as a manufacturing and research hub also presents a concentration of cultural capital. Control over platforms is critical in this respect.
And, as is increasingly being demonstrated, the expansion of China’s walled-garden Internet will increasingly result in the memes of the future being subject to CCP censorship and control mechanisms.
China has proven that it is the master of both hard and soft cyber initiatives, particularly with regards to online platforms such as TikTok—an understanding of these platforms would serve as a great start to bridging the strategic gap, owing to their value for projecting influence.
More importantly, Western democracies should take the lead on innovation (whether through sponsorship, issuing a tender, or private-public partnership) to develop soft cyber capacity. We already do this with aircraft,warships and guns—why do we shy away from similar processes for fourth generation cyberwar?
Nevertheless, talking about technology within a specifically military context is an essential part of the conversation—without any tangible assets, projecting force online would be a moot point.
By the same token, taking advantage of civilian online spaces and technologies appears to be a strategy that the West is only beginning to wake up to, as it contends with a Russian state that has pioneered online psyops, and a Chinese state that has perfected it through leveraging market control in the ICT sector.
To ignore the emerging digital domain of warfare in a world governed by information flows is to invite further attempts to manipulate Western democracy. We can’t discount this any longer.
Callum Harvey is the President and co-founder of the University of Wollongong Digital Media Society, a hybrid student society and student-led media company.