Fake News when states try to hack people’s brains

In the run-up to three European elections top cyber security experts warn of the dangers of fake news attacks from Russia in a bid to influence the result. 

Is Putin the anti-social media for the world’s elections? Intelligence agencies and experts from around the world are warning that the Russian’s have become adept at perception management the new subtle form of propaganda now possible due to social media Picture credits – Angela Merkel by Olaf Kosinsky, Marine Le-Pen by Foto-AG Gymnasium Melle, the Electoral Commission

Is Putin the anti-social media for the world’s elections? Intelligence agencies and experts from around the world are warning that the Russian’s have become adept at perception management the new subtle form of propaganda now possible due to social media. Picture credits – Angela Merkel by Olaf Kosinsky, Marine Le-Pen by Foto-AG Gymnasium Melle, the Electoral Commission

The warning comes as nine nations join forces to prevent fake news and politically-motivated cyber attacks with a new Centre of Excellence in Finland, Brad Davis looks into why.

In an exclusive interview with The CSRI’s sister publication Future Intelligence Professor Andrew Jones painted a frightening picture of how easy it is to spread false information to a large section of the public.

Andy Jones

Professor Andrew Jones warns of Russian information warfare abilities.

“There is a very real fear that the Russians will seek to influence the UK election because of what is at stake. Putin is very keen on breaking up the EU and interfering to achieve a hard Brexit would be high on his agenda,” Professor Andrew Jones, head of Cyber Security at Hertfordshire University and the author of ‘Global Information Warfare told Fi’s PassW0rd radio programme – to listen click here.

In the interview, Professor Jones underlined the advances that the Russians had made in the field of information warfare and pointed to the state’s specific expertise in social media.

Where social media is the preferred platform, information that looks reliable and legitimate – but in fact only exists to mislead – can change public opinion for the benefit some individuals, organisations or governments.

According to Professor Jones, the concerns about the Russians stem from a considerable body of evidence that has connected Vladimir Putin with sophisticated information warfare campaigns in Russia and other target countries in which the Kremlin has a key interest.

Professor Jones said this had resulted in the decision by NATO to launch a ‘hybrid centre to counter the Russian tactics.

“It’s a NATO issue because it seems to be the Russians are getting very good at it (cyber-attacks) and are using it. And we saw examples of it being used in the Ukraine somewhat effectively. The inference is that they used it in the (US) American elections and the Germans are worried it’s going to be used in their elections.”

When asked if France and the UK also feared that similar tactics may be used to alter their election results, Professor Jones responded: “Yes, exactly”, and went on to say that; “if it can affect people’s opinions, then it has significant power”. He labelled it as “influence by other means” with most of the false information “primarily coming through social media because the industry is largely unregulated”.

Professor Jones’ comments were backed up by Commodore Patrick Tyrrell, a leading intelligence expert who was the first to point out the risks from information warfare to the UK in 1996 when he submitted a study into the use of computer warfare to the UK Ministry of Defence.

“I suspect that the UK election is small beer as far as Putin is concerned,” said Tyrrell. “He’s much more interested in the German election and even the French election where there’s the very real possibility that he’s been supporting Marine Le Pen.”

Due to a sharp increase in the number of cyber-attacks and disinformation in recent months, nine nations have now come together and pledged to combine efforts to combat these threats.

Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and the United States have all committed themselves thus far, with the possibility of other nations joining the initiative in July.

As part of the “Memorandum of Understanding” signed by these nations NATO have been tasked with setting up the centre which will be based in Finland. The participating countries will then establish a network of skilled personnel and resources with an initial small group of experts expected to be working from the centre by the end of the year.

The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats will seek to identify the use by the Russians of a new blended (or hybrid) warfare concept. This combines that sees conventional warfare, irregular forces and propaganda. T

In recent years, this has seen fake information being planted on activist hackers to give them the impression that they have ‘liberated it’. Their social media followers then spread such ‘leaks’ as credible.

In  2007, ‘patriotic’ Russian hackers brought down the Estonian Government’s computer systems and paralysed this highly advanced internet-dependent country. It was an alleged retaliation after the Estonian authorities moved the memorial to an unknown Russian soldier that had become a focal point for demonstrations by ethnic Russians in Estonia.

According to observers, the Russian hacking groups involved are ‘irregular forces’ that operate as freelances for the FSB (the Russian intelligence agency), in a role like that of the territorial army in the UK.

 

Announcing the launch of the Hybrid Threats Centre, the head of NATO’s Civil Preparedness Unit Lorenz Meyer-Minnemann said, “Working together is essential in building resilience to hybrid threats” said, . That thought is echoed by Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini who previously stated that “The use of hybrid strategies puts the internal cohesion and resilience of our societies to the test … What is needed in response is not only state, but societal resilience, a comprehensive approach to security.”

The budget for this has been set at €1.5 million with half being funded by the hosts, Finland, and the other half being paid by the other initiative members. The centre is expected to collaborate with existing NATO projects such as its Cyber Defence Centre in Estonia and its Strategic Communications Centre in Latvia.

 

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