Cognitive Hacking, disguised as the manipulation of social media has now become common practice, with this vulnerability being increasingly exploited by nation states and opportunistic individuals alike. It has given actors unprecedented access and ability to cause fundamental shifts in the way targeted demographics think and behave, and it has now become a weaponised tool that warfare is able to be waged. The use of information and the media to wage war is far removed from the traditional concepts of warfare, but has surged in popularity amongst actors today because its cheap, largely risk free readily accessible and easy to do. It’s notoriously difficult to pinpoint where these campaigns originate and whether they’re state-sponsored or rogue individuals, and in many cases, it’s likely that even the actors carrying out the profiles and activities themselves don’t know exactly by whom, or to what ends their actions are directed. Salient examples of Cognitive hacking are found in the US 2016 election, and the BREXIT leave campaign. Other examples include the Internet Research Agency, a russian backed group waging concerted disinformation campaigns that attempt to stoke and inflame both sides of a debate. The use of cognitive hacking, information manipulation and influence operations as a mode of warfare and in modern conflict has expanded the scope of the battlefield and the ability to conduct war out of the purview of the state and state actors, and into the hands of the girl next door. This blurring of the battlefield is embellished in the recent Solar Winds event breach. Of most concern is the lack of any one solution to this problem. China for example has moved to isolationist protective measures to prevent the impact of this threat, regulating their own intranet through the Great Firewall of China. However, a problem with this is that government actors and big wigs are still able to influence the message that does reach the population. And not only that, but such measures are incongruous with many democratic social norms. Another possibility is to continue pressing on educating people regarding awareness and cyber hygiene, but as a security consultant who spends a lot of effort pursuing this, I must confess that I have serious doubts on the efficacy of these endeavours. Another commonly suggested silver bullet, is that of simply regulating the big social media companies, but I think we can all agree that in actuality, the viability of this in such a complex and dynamic landscape is moot. To further this, any attempts by states and international institutions to codify the “laws of war” for the cyber and ICT space are fraught with the same difficulties of conventional protocols and doctrines in that states can ratify and adopt these at their disclosure. So, with that in mind – what does this mean for our future?


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