By Samyak Rai Leekha
All forms of warfare have one primary objective, to impose one’s political will on the adversary. As Clausewitz states, “War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale… an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” In contemporary times, the methods, resources, or skills for executing this objective have changed. China’s foreign influence and mass surveillance operations, Russia’s election interference, and weaponisation of private technology companies are factors accelerating this change. It is important to analyse the emerging conception of modern warfare and its implications for India’s doctrine and policies.
Generations of Warfare
The First Generation Warfare involved person-to-person fighting, primarily dependent upon physical strength, skills, and numbers. The Second Generation Warfare through firepower, resulted in combatants with an asymmetrical force or strength levels being able to impose their will on traditionally more powerful adversaries. The Third Generation Warfare prioritised manoeuvres after infiltrating enemy lines. The Fourth Generation Warfare blurred boundaries between state and non-state actors, and border regions and the hinterland, with terrorism or proxy warfare holding primacy. The decision-making process of the target’s leadership is targeted in this form of warfare. Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism is a case in point. The Fifth Generation Warfare aims to control the adversary’s population through distorting their worldview and threat perceptions, even without the knowledge of the target. Perception warfare is also described by former RAW Chief Sood, arguing that global powers have attempted to set narratives in their own design throughout contemporary history. The People’s Republic of China’s propaganda efforts offer an example in this regard.
Sixth Generation Warfare Shoshana Zuboff describes the contemporary global technology landscape as ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ and describes three stages in its operations — monitoring, personalisation and communication, and continuous experiments. Users’ metadata is commodified and profited on through refinement by predictive analytics and sold in the emerging future predictions market. Centrality of metadata is emphasised from a security perspective by former National Security Agency director, Gen. Michael Hayden, stating that ‘we kill people based on metadata.’
Further, experimentation demonstrated the ability to modify users’ behaviour aimed at eventually monetising its knowledge, predictive capability, and control. Such experiments entail real-time observing, communicating, analysing, predicting, and modifying behaviour, in the virtual or real world. For example, Facebook and Google can successfully influence voter behaviour by their own admissions. This reality business has become the default business model for digital companies globally.
Cyberspace also finds an important role in warfare. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence categorises the role of cyberspace in two distinct capacities — cyber warfare, concerned with destruction, disruption, and tampering with Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) systems; and Information Warfare, which aims to impact the decision-making processes of the target’s citizenry for advancing particular narratives. Data is crucial for such operations, acting as resources for better targeting to spread one’s narrative, and a weapon to alter an adversary’s political course of action through undermining internal support.
With Big Data, behavioural or predictive analytics and AI, the nature of warfare in cyberspace has evolved. The US government warns of dangers of behaviour modification by technology services, stating that, ‘there is a growing potential for big data analytics to have an immediate effect on a person’s surrounding environment or decisions being made about his or her life.’
Sixth Generation Warfare (6GW) applies ‘Reflexive Control’ aided by these developments to target in an individualised manner and change the beliefs of the leadership or citizenry of the adversary through mass data and behavioural analytics. The objective being infiltration the adversary’s ‘observe, orient, decide, and act’ loop. Reflexive Control theory is described as ‘a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.’
In essence, altering the world view, threat perception, and understanding of reality of the adversary’s citizenry or leadership through individualised targeting, using the user data through behavioural and predictive analytics, and thus, modifying the behaviour of the adversary in one’s own design.
Global powers taking notice
With 6GW considered as the newest iteration of warfare, global powers have taken notice and devised strategies accordingly. Russia has incorporated numerous facets of this phenomena into their doctrines, operations, and policies, finding a mention in the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’ with increasing emphasis on ‘battlefield of the mind.’ The 2016 US election interference, for example, relied upon data from Facebook, obtained by Cambridge Analytica. The platform’s behavioural analytics were used to run personalised campaigns in a Reflexive Control operation. Similar tactics were followed in other election interference operations too.
The PRC’s ‘three wars’ doctrine emphasises similar objectives. PRC holds the distinction as “one of the leading collectors of bulk personal data around the globe, using both illegal and legal means.” PRC technology is known to monitor foreign user activity and impose censorship on topics which are deemed sensitive. The National Intelligence Law (NIL) obligates PRC’s companies to assist in foreign espionage activities, and even share foreign user data with PRC’s government. PRC’s growing foreign influence operations rely on data or metadata predictive or behavioural analytics, as evidenced by the Zhenua data leak, when China was caught collecting data of millions of people globally and engaged in attitudinal profiling of the targets.
Ways forward for India
Being amongst the most surveilled countries, India has undertaken certain measures to reduce foreign data collection, including with sectoral data localisation, the recent data protection bill, indigenisation efforts vis-à-vis government institutions. However, much of these efforts approach the topic from a privacy standpoint, and at a strategic level, the issue is limitedly addressed.
In the short term, India must ratify the data protection bill to ensure credible protection from this threat. Further, the bill itself, while limiting legal collection and processing of ‘personal data,’ does not mention metadata to any extent, something which could be rectified.
In the longer term, India must deliberate on and integrate the modern form of warfare while developing its national security strategy, not just in a cyber context, but in a larger strategic context, and should leverage India’s growing tech industry to gain reflexivity on its strategic opponents, akin to US’ PRISM programme or PRC’s NIL.