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The US should build an ‘online NATO’ to counter cyber challenges

Propaganda and psychological operations or psyops have been part of the artillery of warring nations forever. But technological enhancers like social media platforms and military-grade hacking have taken such machinations to another plane, with artificial intelligence poised to add another dimension to it.

columns Updated: Jul 20, 2018 19:04 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times
By appearing to question Russian involvement in the infiltration of the communications of the Democratic National Committee and 2016 party nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, Trump may have allowed bad actors in the cyber theatre to continue with their interference operations.(AP)

It may have been fitting that Russian President Vladimir Putin gifted a football to his American counterpart Donald Trump as they held their summit in Helsinki earlier this week. Trump, of course, scored the perfect own goal. By appearing to question Russian involvement in the infiltration of the communications of the Democratic National Committee and 2016 party nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, Trump may have allowed bad actors in the cyber theatre to continue with their interference operations.

Propaganda and psychological operations or psyops have been part of the artillery of warring nations forever. But technological enhancers like social media platforms and military-grade hacking have taken such machinations to another plane, with artificial intelligence poised to add another dimension to it. After all, how many countries would launch an actual conventional war over a cyber conflict that doesn’t occupy real territory but encroaches upon mindspace? That immunity breeds a sort of impunity. It isn’t just Russia, of course. Even China has repeatedly hacked America, as during the theft of nearly 21.5 million records of personnel between 2014 and 2015, to the recent stealing of naval data. And, copying the Russian playbook, it is undertaking political psyops in Cambodia, and other obvious targets like Taiwan and Tibetan activists.

This is where the United States needs to step up. Instead, Trump has dumped the country’s cybersecurity czar. It isn’t likely that a solution will emerge elsewhere. At the United Nations, for instance, as the Council on Foreign Relations noted last year, the group of government experts that attempted to draft global norms including holding a nation responsible for attacks that originated from its territory, was stymied by, who else, Russia and China. An international protocol on cybersecurity may be necessary but is as remote a possibility as an understatement in a tweet from Trump.

That is an imminent threat to open societies like India. We have already witnessed how WhatsApp messaging can be weaponised to create strife and launch a lynching epidemic. With Lok Sabha elections due next year, there will be the threat of potential psyops along the fault lines of the polity and society. There is credible belief that Rawalpindi is engaged in such operations, not just with social media honey traps. The ISI is working on using social media as a force multiplier, and into turning the web into a battlefield where the ammunition is disinformation. This is a low-risk, high reward strategy that Trump may just have excused.

This is the problem that democracies face since they cannot build their own versions of the Great Firewall to prevent such incursions, or shut down foreign platforms, or virtual private networks. That’s where America could have stepped in to build a democratic consensus on countering cyber challenges, a sort of an online NATO, if you will. However, with Trump dropping the ball on this issue, the penalty may well be paid by the rest of the democratic world.

Anirudh Bhattacharya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 20, 2018 19:02 IST