Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | January 17, 2010

Info-Skirmishes

What do the assassination of an Iranian scientist and a cyber duel between Iran and China have to do with each other?

I’ll ask you to bear with me just a little on this one, readers.  It will all come together, but there are several distinct threads.  It matters, however.  It’s out there right now affecting what you think.  Increasingly, we are all going to need to understand this kaleidoscopically evanescent issue.

The unifying element is the concept of “Information Warfare” or “Information Operations,” which no one has gotten a really good handle on since the world’s militaries decided to declare this realm a discipline some 20 or so years ago.  The US military has put a lot of effort into it, however, and is doing more and more with it, as are other militaries across the globe.  Governments, of course, have been engaged in Information Operations, or IO, for centuries.  The game is, ultimately, to influence what people perceive, think, and decide.

The IT realm has been one of the biggest accelerants of the IO/IW discipline, because it’s all about communicating “information” more and more broadly and efficiently.  Of course, the more “information” being communicated, the greater the amount of spurious, specious, unfiltered, and unanalyzed information.  Technicians from radar operators to tree-ring data analysts have known that for a long time.  Today’s Twitter-enabled watchers of political revolutions abroad are learning it as well.

But there is a good case that humanity is applying its same old patterns to the brave new world of IT, IO, and IW, more than the information revolution is transforming humanity.  People do with IT what people want to do.  IT has its own arcane rules, but it has no independent raison d’être:  it was created by humans for human purposes, and is used by us for the same.  And nowhere is that more evident than in the way information about human events is brought to us.

The Cyber Duel

We can start with the cyber duel between Iran and China.  Iranian hackers are responsible for bringing down China’s most widely-used internet search engine, Baidu, for about four hours on 12 January.  The hackers, styling themselves the “Iranian Cyber Army,” warned Chinese internet users against expressing support of the Green movement reformists in Iran.  Chinese hackers retaliated within hours by intruding on Iranian systems, before system operators on both sides regained control of the situation.

What I love about the Western reporting on this is that, in spite of the fact that some of it ignores the obvious and other elements of it are thoughtlessly credulous, you can still derive the probable truth from it.  You also find out things that matter in a larger context, including at the political level – things that help you appreciate the big-picture import of the situation.  It’s a superb study in the concept of “information,” to go through the individual data points and come up with an assessment.

As we will see in another situation, that may not be the case if you’re not reading Western reporting.

News outlets in the US, Europe, and non-Chinese Far East all reported this story pretty much the same way, with the Iranian Cyber Army depicted as a group of hackers whose origin was uncertain.  This could be thought of as the “unbiased,” universally-agnostic journalistic posture:  reporting on a group in the terms in which it describes itself.  Typical Western reporting has referred to the Iranian Cyber Army as a “shadowy” group that previously hacked Twitter, the favored IT vehicle for Green outreach, in December.

But of course, such uninformative terms are deceptive themselves from any sensible standpoint.  If the pretext for hacking a nation’s most widely-used search engine is its users’ support for a political insurgency in another nation, it looks downright silly to ignore that factor, and refrain from advancing the obvious conclusion.  When the hackers’ history is of attacking the network by which the same insurgency communicates, the obvious conclusion is only strengthened.  It’s neither foolish nor dangerous to work off the assumption that the Iranian Cyber Army is sponsored by the regime in Tehran; rather, it is courting idiocy not to.

Western coverage of the counter-hack from China proceeded along the same abstractly agnostic lines, as if it were likely that Chinese civilian computer whizzes mounted the attack when China’s government has been cultivating a particular proficiency in such operations for years now.  Of course Iranian systems were hacked by agents of the government in Beijing.  The speed and efficiency of the retaliation are the hallmarks of organized, 24/7 preparation for such necessities – and that is something China has been known to have in place for a long time.

The Western bias against certain types of tendentious assumptions is evident in the reporting on this event, and if you’re a Westerner yourself you understand it.  It’s how we approach both law and science, for example.  You also have the choice, in your own analysis, of how much priority of place to give that skeptical posture.  Do we really lack sufficient empirical evidence to assume, with confidence, that it’s the governments sponsoring these cyber-attacks?  Who else, after all, would want to?

If you’re an Iranian, you might well think it’s pretty stupid of Western reporters, to not “get” that an “Iranian Cyber Army” that specializes in attacking the supporters of a political insurgency is, of course, an agent of the regime.  Chinese netizens could say the same about the counterattack on Iran.  “Right,” they might snort:  “Baidu users who’ve been giving snaps to the Iranian Greens are going to turn around and hack random university computers in Iran.  Sure.”

What we can see in this is that Western reporting is made from a set of contextual premises, as all reporting is.  Growing up in a culture equips us to navigate its hazards deftly.  When I see Western journalists write as if the “Iranian Cyber Army” could be anybody, I don’t suspect them, as an Iranian might, of being idiots.  Neither do I credulously assume that they have stated an exact and comprehensive “truth.”  I recognize what they are doing – being empirically skeptical in a sense that we accept, understand, and even expect – and then apply my own analysis and draw my own conclusions.

As a consumer of Western reporting, I also learn this interesting fact:  that China’s Baidu was using the DNS server of an American company in Florida before the attack, and is registered to the internet by the US-based top-level domain registrar Register.com.  Industry experts believe the Iranian Cyber Army probably got into Baidu by phishing someone at Register.com and obtaining administrative access that way.

This is, among other things, a good reminder that such attempts are being made all the time, and the need for vigilance and sensitization to vulnerabilities is significant.  It’s also politically interesting, given the simultaneous eruption of the Google ultimatum to China, and Hillary Clinton’s proclamation of US concerns about Google being hacked by China.  China could make some rather obvious rejoinders about Baidu, and system vulnerabilities being present everywhere.

We over here in Western-thinking-land can see the fine sense in which we are not being hoist on our own petard, even as, in a cruder sense, we pretty much are.  The luxury of such intellectual discrimination is not present everywhere, however.  In much of the world, “being subject to the same computer system vulnerabilities” translates easily into “having the same national policies for cyber-warfare”; and it will seem as likely that the US government had something to do with hacking Baidu as that the Chinese government hacked Google.  Governments are governments; that is the controlling given.

The Assassination

Of course, it doesn’t make sense – to you and me – to think the US and an Iranian Cyber Army colluded to hack Baidu in China.  But little makes sense in Iran’s claims about the 12 January assassination of an Iranian particle physics scientist either.  Massoud Ali-Mohammadi was killed by a bomb strapped to a motorcycle outside his home in Tehran, and the regime immediately began blaming the US and Israel, Ahmadinejad adding the poetic refinement that the incendiary device was a “Zionist-style” bomb.

Western reporting very quickly began assembling reasons to be skeptical about that, the chief of which is that Ali-Mohammadi had very little, if anything, to do with Iran’s nuclear program.  This has been the case in America’s flagship media organizations – NYT, WaPo, Time, Newsweek – as well as in independent media.  The skeptical approach has been evident in British and French media as well.

Ali-Mohammadi’s published work, it turns out, has dealt with a highly abstract level of theory about particle physics, not the practical-application side of developing nuclear technology.  While Iran’s academic science program has served as a front for suspect nuclear technology development, Mohammadi’s acquaintances abroad all say he was never associated with it.  What he was associated with was the Green movement.  He supported Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the June 2009 election, and has been a vocal critic of the regime in the months since.  One website reports that Ali-Mohammadi had accepted an academic fellowship in Stockholm, and was killed just before he was to leave the country for that appointment.

We may note that Western journalists are not making the case that the US or Israel would not assassinate an Iranian nuclear scientist.  The points they are reporting indicate rather that Ali-Mohammadi did not fit the profile of the type of scientist there would be a high payoff from eliminating.  Some Western commentators allude to the implication of Israel in the assassination of Egyptian nuclear scientists 1960s.  But the emerging tacit consensus is that there was no reason for either Israel or the US to assassinate Ali-Mohammadi.  If reason existed, it existed for the Iranian regime, not its foreign opponents.

A Very Different Informational Perspective

There is a remarkable contrast to this skeptical approach in the coverage by Russian media.  Russian coverage appears to range from uninterested and perfunctory to in-the-tank for Iran, and for an anti-Zionist perspective.  There is less anti-Western venom in some of the coverage, but there is no balance in terms of the basic narrative:  no allusion at all to the facts that would argue against Iran’s version of events.

Pravda, as we might expect, gives the most tendentiously one-sided picture.  There is no doubt in the minds at Pravda that Israel killed Ali-Mohammadi, and that the US is probably implicated somehow.  Pravda wastes little verbiage on reporting the 12 January incident itself, leaping instead to an indictment of Israel and the US in accents mustily reminiscent of the Cold War – a timely reminder that there’s a market for this stuff.

Russian media’s other forays into “information” are more terse and less inclined to historical excursion.  But they are still one-sided.  RIA Novosti, the state media outlet (whose “Russia Today” news station many American cable subscribers now receive), basically regurgitates what Iran’s state media say about the bombing:  that the Iranian government suspects Israel and the US.  Nominally independent organs – Kommersant, Izvestia, Vedomosti – follow suit.  The Moscow Times, the main English-language paper patronized by English-speaking foreigners, which often runs opinion pieces critical of Russian government policy and state-media interpretations of foreign events, hadn’t reported the killing of Ali-Mohammadi at all, as of yesterday (Friday the 15th).  A Russian reading only traditional Russian media coverage would not be aware of the contraindications zealously uncovered by Western journalists, and would know only that Iran blames the killing of  one of her scientists on Israel and the US.

There is a significant difference today from 30, 60, or 90 years ago, of course:  Russians who can navigate other languages – English, German, French – can instantaneously access the same reporting online that is available to Westerners.  But it is strangely reminiscent of the patterns of a not-so-distant past, to see the approved media outlets of one nation slavishly regurgitating the narratives produced by the approved media outlets of another.  Soviet Russian media at one time reliably synchronized their themes with those required by the regimes in Poland or Hungary, when they needed to reinforce a common informational perspective to hang onto power.  Hitler’s and Mussolini’s media amen corners did the same in the late 1930s.

In early 1940, Clare Booth (before she became Clare Booth Luce) had to travel physically to Europe to figure out what the editorial perspective was in Italy, France, Britain, and the Low Countries on that whole thing with Hitler and the “Sitzkrieg.”  In 2010, we can see editorial opinion abroad developing from our own home computers.  The visible difference in editorial empiricism – and interest in uncovering the truth – between today’s Russian media and even the West’s most bias-encrusted Old Media, is almost tangible, and has to be food for thought.

And yet – I suspect on the whole that more Americans were aware in 1940 that there was a foreign editorial perspective to understand, than are aware of it today.  The meta-concept of universally available “information” has permeated the Western consciousness to such an extent that we think of foreign editorial perspectives as interesting antiquities, if we think of them at all.  We have a sense that information is information, and that handling it differently from the way we do is a cost-free curiosity rather than the pretext it too often is for the use of force.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

This, then, is the realm of “information.”  Now, imagine trying to gain “dominance” in it.  A lot happened on 12 January 2010, and I don’t know that any of us thinks he or she knows exactly what any of it was.  We’re probably better convinced of what it was not – but even there, there’s some wiggle room.  If we were to pick an information theme we wanted to make dominant, in relation to the Iran-China cyber duel, what would it be?  Indeed, who would be the target population for our efforts?  Whom would we want to convince – and for what purpose?

Perhaps we would want people in Iran, China, and the watching world to know that it is never our policy to hack other nations’ search engines out of vengeance, that we categorically decry such attacks and wouldn’t be involved in them.  Are we convincing in that regard?  To ourselves, certainly.  To our traditional and long-time allies we are.  To the Chinese or the Iranians?  Well – first of all, which ones?

We could also look for common conceptual ground out of the cyber duel, representing to China in particular how much it’s in all our interests to sing off the same sheet of music in technology policy.  Maybe Hillary Clinton will do that this coming week.  Of course, what we might intend as an invitation extended on the basis of commonality, Beijing could well interpret as a veiled threat.

So much depends, ultimately, on our culturally-generated approaches to information.  In the second week of 2010 we saw telling instances of divergence in those approaches.  The US government wouldn’t intrude on the computer networks used by foreign civilians whose political views it disagreed with.  If we develop attack capabilities, it will be to interfere with the operations of governments that are in conflict with us.  This will remain the case no matter how many foreign search engines are hosted on servers physically located in the United States.

Iran has a different perspective, however, and China too.  And Western journalism has yet another perspective, one that resonates with the Western reader but might come off as absurdly – even mendaciously or stupidly – neutral in other cultures.  There is overlap between our idea of a free press in the West, and the greater press freedom the peoples of some nations might want to have, but they are not necessarily exactly the same thing.

Why am I leading you on this meandering course through the swirling landscape of “information”?  Because there is a great paradigm shift underway around the globe, and our increasingly-accelerated infosphere will not necessarily be a lodestar in it, in the coming days.  The frameworks through which we have viewed the world since the end of World War II are being undermined, and the infosphere will be as affected by that as any other.  The pendulum had swung, after 1991, toward all of us thinking we “know” the same things, but it has already started swinging back the other way.

The geopolitical stasis that has depended, for its quiescent maintenance, in part on this shared perception of knowledge, is crumbling.  That has a great deal to do with the absolute retreat of the US from our former dominant posture, a process that Obama is accelerating but which he did not start.  But the stasis we once guarded with force of arms has taken time to disintegrate because shared perceptions are a bolstering agent – a factor that saved us money and resources in maintaining stability.  If and as those shared perceptions slip away, it will take more than rhetoric, argument, and assurances to get them back.

What do you think happened in the Iran-China cyber duel of 12 January 2010?  Who do you think probably killed Massoud Ali-Mohammadi in Tehran on the same day?  What do you think Google’s motive was for issuing its ultimatum to China, also on 12 January?  These events and their interpretations are a unique set of prisms, because there is no obvious, single informational perspective on any of them – no view of the matter that we could fully expect the earth’s various human observers to share.  We can expect more and more of these minor incidents, coming at us “not battalions but spies,” a few here and a few there, with diverging perceptions of their nature and import piling up in different parts of the globe.

It has been decades since the last time we humans did not have big paradigms on autopilot offering us ready explanations, even if they were competing explanations, as during the Cold War.  We are entering a period of flux in this regard – and we in America are likely to need to attend not only to Information Operations, but to our most fundamental philosophical underpinnings:  what we think we mean, what we believe we would do, and who we believe we are.


Responses

  1. Interesting.

    In sales or what people are willing to ‘buy’, perception is king. Culture certainly affects perceptions and thus the conclusions reached.

    Once again, principle lays clear the path to making sense of disparate, seemingly unconnected information.

    The ‘watergate truism’, “follow the money” comes to mind as an apt paraphrase for a useful clarifying principle, when faced with uncertainty.

    Put another way, who had the most to gain or the most profound motivation, whether it be in the assassination of the Iranian scientist or the mutual hacking?

    In detective work and legal prosecution, motive, means and opportunity must all be satisfied when claiming to have proven beyond a reasonable doubt whom the perpetrator of a crime must be.

    Keeping these principles in mind can go far toward alleviating the tendency we all have to allow cultural biases to influence the processing of information in a seemingly logical but inaccurate manner.

  2. Funny, GB, I just thought you might be the one to comment on this. I suspected the topic might be a tad abstruse for most readers.

    But I think 2010 is the year we’re going to realize the “global consensus” that has reigned over informational ideas since the West’s victory in the Cold War is falling apart. It seems like if we start thinking about that now, we won’t have to play so much catch-up when it becomes a problem for the course of events.

    Your point is well-taken, but I would say that it’s also a very Western-rationalist point. There’s a much more powerful tug of irrationality, conspiracism, and belief in novelized versions of eschatologies outside that consensus than we tend to realize. And things that look and smell like the most technologically modern media outlets can predicate their coverage on explaining events through partisan fairy tales.

    Yet there won’t be a single, overarching energumen of “Communism” or “Islam” behind it. Some of it, as with much of what Russia and China do, will be plain old-fashioned nationalism, parochialism, and power politics. It won’t even masquerade as much other than that. We’ve spent the years since 1917 countering ideology with ideology, but countering non-ideological cynicism will be a different ball game.


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