wo hundred years ago, the primary commodity in interpersonal and international relations was the information itself. The ability to possess and provide information was of significant influence. Knowledgeable people were respected for the information they obtained and were able to use. However, the storage of data has shifted towards digitalized instruments. The amounts of data available are so significant that the commodity is not the information itself, but the ability to navigate through it and choose the right one to serve the purpose in decision-making.
The equation from the past, when information was scarce, has shifted to the state where the amount of data is abundant, sometimes monstrous in size. People have started to store information and thus ceased to carry it along. The future includes the ability to analyze the piles of data and to decide what is relevant and vital and truthful. This new paradigm enables confusion, the undermining and spreading of information to either manipulate or to obfuscate the critical information. Decision-makers need information in order to conduct conscious decisions, and there are many ways to disrupt that process. If the aim is to minimize or cripple the ability to command and control, there are varieties of techniques for how to achieve that aim.
Although the former Soviet Union was considered a military superpower, it sought alternatives to conventional military power. Years of underfunding during the Cold War and at the beginning of 1990s led to the advancement of theoretical and strategically essential concepts such as reflexive control. The imperative was not only to search for alternatives to physical and kinetic capabilities and conventional military might, but to address the changing environment in which the Soviet Union, and later Russia, found itself.
The emergence of a single information space threatened the dominance of the state and security apparatus over the flow of information and its availability to the people, ordinary decision makers. It was true not only domestically, where competing information could have severe ramifications for the stability of the regime, but also internationally. Russian strategists soon realized that—as was the case in the past, on a much smaller scale, when the controller of the situation held the key to achieving its strategic aim—the global information space or unified information sphere was a threat to the worldwide balance of power. Whoever controls perception controls reality with definitive impact on the assessment of the importance of information warfare.
Russian military theorists and strategists have reached the conclusion that information has become a national or strategic resource. With the dawn of information technologies and the free spread of information in the somewhat anarchic nature of the information sphere, people have unprecedented access to information, a fact which affords everyone—ordinary people to top decision makers—a variety of choices when searching for information and creating their perception of reality. The informatization of society has penetrated all levels of existence and organizational aspects of the community. Because this includes economic, social regulatory systems, and the military itself, this informatization leads to the conclusion that, by influencing the channels, the filters and the content, the controlling subject can achieve information superiority.
Information superiority leads to attaining strategic goals without exclusive reliance on conventional power assets. Russian strategists believe that countries that have obtained information superiority will be predisposed to employ military force subsequently. This is likely due to their belief that the controlling subject has control of the perception of reality, and thus is able to form a perceived forcible outcome. Also, military objectives may seem easier to achieve with the support of a complex influence operation. Although this is a position where influence operations are complementary to military activities, the theoretical approach followed in Russia illustrates the dynamic by stating that the convergence between nonmilitary and military is desirable and should be employed.
Other characteristics of cyberspace which make it suitable for applying information operations for reflexive control are—absent international legislature—fewer legal restraints, less attribution to attacks and less enforceability. With a virtually nonexistent code of conduct combined with the features of the physical world, where hard evidence is obtained quickly in comparison to cyberspace, cyberspace has become a preferred avenue for influence operations—not only because of its amplification features, but also because of the numerous ways to mask the identity and source of the attack.
Where there is no crime, there is no prosecution. National legal frameworks differ in dealing with cybercrime, critical information infrastructure protection and cyber terrorism. In the vacancy of binding IHL for cyberspace with states only now trying to create rules of engagement, it is no wonder that cyberspace has become a lawless place ripe for exploitation and information attacks. The examples of individuals indicted for crimes in cyberspace are so few, and too personal—data-theft and illegal contraband-oriented—that pursuing tradecraft relocated to cyberspace is almost too difficult to describe; it is becoming more political with every successful information attack.
Along with the other advantages of cyberspace such as reflexive control and influence operations, low cost of entry pays a significant role. The resource investment requirement here differs from those in conventional military procurement and is an order of magnitude less expensive.
Another facet is the use of proxies to conduct the influence operations, information attacks with hostile code and hostile content on behalf of the controlling subject. These proxies are affiliated indirectly or directly with the control subject. However, a whole market-based economy, reliant on supply and demand exists, which is ironic given the Marx-Leninist roots of the driving theories behind Soviet information operations. In this market, human skills not only can be bought, acquired or rented, but information is for sale, personal data troves useful for creating the profile of an opposing decision maker, stolen information about consumer behavior is available. Also, vulnerabilities and exploits are for sale for malicious code attacks and other computer network operations. Everyone can rent or buy the infrastructure, meaning computational power, for malicious activities. It is a significant shift from the conventional perspective of conducting intelligence operations, where private proxies and unknowing subjects were also utilized, but never on such a scale including all aspects of the action. Even in comparison with the conventional military power, it is hardly imaginable that a control subject would turn to a private citizen to ask for assets of firepower that the citizen is offering on the black market. Nevertheless, it is happening in cyberspace. The privatization and monetization of enabling assets for influencing whole societal systems is a few clicks away.
In April 2015, when the international community, including the United States and the European Union, were increasingly worried about the ongoing military campaign of Russia in Ukraine, pressure on the regime in Moscow was increasing.
In April 2015, when the international community, including the United States and the European Union, were increasingly worried about the ongoing military campaign of Russia in Ukraine, pressure on the regime in Moscow was increasing. Diverting the international interest and lessening the pressure of potential countermeasures aiming at the administration in Moscow, a threat of higher significance emerged in the arena of international security agenda.
Based on the correct perception that populations in the U.S. and Europe are more receptive to the threat of terrorism than a paramilitary operation in Ukraine, an attack was allegedly conducted by the Islamic state, Daesh, as an information operation in cyberspace. Cybercaliphate, a group affiliated as a proxy to Daesh, attacked the French television TV5Monde, affecting it by taking down all 11 channels, taking over social media accounts, website and the infrastructure of TV5Monde itself. The attack, among other vectors, resulted in displaying Daesh's flag. Or at least that was supposed to be the perception, to alter people’s interest and to create pressure on political representation, diverting their attention towards more immediate issues such as Daesh. The reality of Daesh attacking Europe would lead to lessening the burden on Russia regarding their military operations in Ukraine. Several expert groups and media outlets attributed the attack to the proxy group APT28 aka Fancy Bear (aka Sofacy group, aka Pawn Storm), through means of circumstantial evidence regarding the technical infrastructure used for the attack. Tools, techniques, and procedures assigned to this group served as evidence. This was one of the first, and best, examples of how a previously military-oriented approach had a civilian application to meet the same ends. By nurturing fear, and creating a real or imaginary threat to the society, it was demonstrably easy to shift the focus of decision makers away from the issue at hand.
Undisrupted decision-making being done on the strategic level or on citizen level is a key component to governance, political choices and future activities undertaken by individuals and state and non-state actors. By disrupting the ability to collect, analyze and decide, one is lost in today´s complex world, sometimes with assets unavailable to be utilized, because the decision-making algorithm has been compromised.