“Cyber MAD” is a Bad Idea. Really Bad.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but nothing screams “legacy future” like trying to shoe-horn cold-war thinking into “cyber.” This latest attempt doesn’t disappoint (or maybe it does, depending on how you look at it) because it completely miss two key points:

  1. Cyberspace is not meat-space;
  2. Digital weapons are nothing like atomic ones.

Yes, like the nuclear arms race, it is in fact more expensive to defend yourself than it is to attack someone. Generally speaking. Its OK to paint with a broad brush on this point because so many entities online are so woefully inadequate when it comes to defense that we forget that there are actually some who are quite hard and expensive to attack. Any serious colored-hat who is being honest will tell you that they deal with more than their fair share of unknowns and ‘unknown unknowns’ when going after any given target.

But unlike malicious actions in cyberspace, there is no parsing nuclear war. You’re nuked, or you’re not. Cyber-espionage, cyber-crime, cyber-attack…all indistinguishable in all technically meaningful ways. Each has a different intent, which we are left to speculate about after-the-fact. In the other scenario, no one is around to speculate why a battalion of Reds turned their keys and pushed their buttons.

Attacker identity is indeed important whether you’re viewing a potential conflict through nuclear or digital lenses, but you know what excuse doesn’t work in the nuclear scenario? “It wasn’t me.”

Um, IR burn says it was…

There is no such equivalent in cyberspace. You can get close – real close – given sufficient data and time, but there will be no Colin Powell-at-the-UN-moment in response to a cyber threat because “it wasn’t me” is a perfectly acceptable excuse.

But we have data.

You can fabricate data

You know what you can’t fabricate? Fallout.

All of this, ALL OF THIS, is completely pointless because if some adversary had both the will and the wherewithal to attack and destroy our and just our critical infrastructure and national security/defense capabilities via cyber means…what are we meant to strike back with? Who are those who happen to be left unscathed supposed to determine who struck first? I was not a Missileer, but I’m fairly certain you can’t conduct granular digital attribution from the bottom of an ICBM silo.

What is the point of worrying about destruction anyway? Who wants that? The criminals? No, there is too much money to be made keeping systems up and careless people online. The spies? No, there is too much data to harvest and destruction might actually make collection hard. Crazy-bent-on-global-domination types? This is where I invoke the “Movie Plot Threat” clause. If the scenario you need to make your theory work in cyberspace is indistinguishable from a James Bond script, you can’t be taken seriously.

MAD for cyberspace is a bad idea because its completely academic and does nothing to advance the cause of safety or security online (the countdown to someone calling me “anti-intellectual” for pointing out this imperial nudity starts in 5, 4, 3….). MAD, cyber deterrence, all this old think is completely useless in any practical sense. You know why MAD and all those related ideas worked in the 60s? Because they dealt with the world and the problem in front of them as it was, not how they wished it to be.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do more and do more differently in order to make cyberspace a safer and more secure environment. I don’t know anyone who argues otherwise. I’m even willing to bet there is a period of history that would provide a meaningful analog to the problems we face today, but the Cold War isn’t it.

How Many Holes in a Gohor Stick?

I’ve never used Palantir. I’ve never used DCGS-A. When I started as an Analyst you (no-shit) used pencil and paper (and a thing called a guhor stick…but that’s a lewd joke for another day). The kerfuffle over Palatir vs. DCGS-A reminds me of the days when computers started making in-roads in analysis shops, and I hope everyone involved can remember some of those lessons learned.

Now my working world in those early days wasn’t entirely computer-free, but back then computers were where you stored data and recorded activity and typed up reports, you didn’t “link” things together and you certainly didn’t draw, graph or do anything anyone coming up in the business today would recognize as computer-oriented.

If there was a quantum leap in the utility computers gave to analysis it was this application called Analyst Notebook. Analyst Notebook would take in the data you had already entered into some other system (assuming you could get it out of said system), and kick out diagrams and pictures that let you make quick sense of who was talking to whom, what happened when, and identify connections or anomalies you may have missed staring into a green screen at row after row, column after column of letters and numbers.

That’s the key here: Analyst Notebook, Palantir, etc. are Analyst’s tools, they are not analysis tools. Is that a distinction without a difference? I’m not aware of any software application that will think on your behalf. I’m not aware of anyone in the military or IC who would trust answers produced entirely by an algorithm and without human interpretation or enhancement. If you could computerize analysis you wouldn’t have a headcount problem in the IC. Analyst Notebook, Palantir, DCGS-A . . . they’re all tools, and if you’ve been working with hand tools all your life and suddenly someone hands you a Skil saw, of course you’re going to think the Skil saw was sent from heaven.

Now, is the government notorious for producing bloated, expensive, minimally functional software that everyone hates to use (when it works at all)? We don’t have time to go into all the examples, but the answer is ‘yes.’ If I offer you tool A OR tool B when you’ve been using tool C, which are you going to choose? Does that make your other choice crap? Of course not.

It sounds to me like if there is a 800 lb gorilla in the room it’s usability, and if there is one thing that commercial apps excel at its the user experience. Think about the Google interface, and then think about a data retrieval system fielded in the 70s, and you tell me what your average analyst would rather use…

If the ultimate requirement is capability, then the answer is simple: hold a shoot-out and may the best app win. Pretty-but-sub-capable isn’t going to cut it; functional-but-frustrating isn’t either. If DCGS-A is all that, they should be big enough to learn from what Palantir does well; If Palantir is really about saving lives and national defense, they ought to be big enough to implement what GIs need most. Competition raises everyone’s game, but this isn’t about .com vs .gov, it’s about lives.

underrattelser – US style

Ralph Peters’ latest report on improvements in MI. Money graph:

Appropriate technologies can help us – but no database or collection
system is a substitute for seasoned human judgment. The key task in
intelligence is understanding the enemy. Machines do many things, but they still don’t register flesh-and-blood relationships, self-sacrifice or fanaticism.

Underrattelser: Improvement from below (how Swedes describe MI) covered at John Robb’s site.

 

Inside Dope

Don’t know this particular person, but I know his brothers and sisters and their song remains the same (courtesy of Small Wars Journal):

Morale has become bad enough in the Iraq office that DIA has
had to drop the requirement for analysts who deploy to Iraq work in the
office after they return. In the last several months, the office has
experienced an exodus of many of its veteran analysts. The office
remains critically undermanned and short of computers. Analysts have
begun to apply for jobs with local county police departments.

You need to read the whole thing.

I’ve said it before but it is always nice to have corroboration: The longer we tolerate industrial-age processes and cold-war mindsets in the IC, the faster it slides towards irrelevance.

Open Source Reform

Thanks to John for pointing this out:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals — including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders — in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.

Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys.” They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.

…and this:

Since it appears that I pissed off the “new” establishment when I pointed out that much of his new thinking paralleled my own earlier work.

…which reminded me of an old peeve of mine: external eggs-perts. Seniors love to call in consultants to solve problems. They never bother to ask those actually working the job because how in the world could any kind of original thinking reside in-house? Where do those consultants go for their answers? There is always an academic study or two referenced in the final report but usually the list of suggestions is generated from the feedback that Alice and Bob provided when the eggs-perts came slinking through the workplace to do their survey. Usually the recommended changes aren’t put into practice because they negatively impact the role/power/authority of the people who commissioned the study in the first place (or they’re twisted to argue for a bigger rice bowl) but that’s just another argument for staying in-house in the first place: you save money twice.

There are many wells to tap when you’re looking for solutions and they don’t call come with big price tags and require MBAs (or Ph.D.s) to discover. For Petraeus, that his advisors are war-vet Colonels is gravy; he could have gotten equally good results by tapping a couple of smart young Captains (and SSGs) who were familiar with the GG/Zen/5GW/tdaxp universe. The added bonus being that the youngsters have at least another decade of military life in them – prepping them for leadership gigs in the “long” part of the “long war” – while most of the Colonels will have (Ret) after their names before long.

I understand that busy Seniors don’t have time to do their own research, but in this day and age if they’re not tapping expertise in-house – and exhausting all the open sources of ideas they can – then calling in outsiders who are going to charge for something that is free is waste, fraud and abuse.

Sword, double-edged, one-each

Bloody hell:

Google is talking with military agencies in Iraq after learning that terrorists attacking British bases in Basra appear to have been using aerial footage from Google Earth to pinpoint strikes … Among documents seized in raids on insurgents’ homes were printouts from photos taken from Google Earth that show the location of buildings, tents, latrines and lightly armored vehicles…

[…]

Royal Green Jackets soldiers based at Basra Palace base said they would consider suing Google if they were injured in any attacks in which Google Earth aerial shots were used.

That this is old news and of concern to militaries worldwide is little comfort to the RGJ troopers but that’s a tough break in the information age. I laughed at the idea of soldiers suing those who may have facilitated attacks, but then remembered that they let kooky things like that go on in the EU. Good luck with that, mate.

There was a time, when I was trying to work Iraqi sand out of my own crevasses, that Google Earth caliber imagery would have been pretty darn handy, because you’d have been hard pressed to get national-level assets to give you pictures with that kind of quality in a timely fashion. In the age of backpack UAVs I wonder if that is still the case. The skeptic in my thinks it probably is, in which case having access to Google Earth means units on the ground don’t have to rely on dated military maps and too-late satellite snapshots to get an aerial view of the AO that they can mash up with any first-hand info they gather on the ground. Borders, hidden alleys, safe houses, etc., etc.

Turn-about being fair play and all . . .