Friday Brief for 8 October 2021

Facebook drama; INTEL evolutions; & Scarlet Dragon looks for targets

  
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Tech Terms

Mesh WifiA mesh Wi-Fi system is a series of Wi-Fi routers that work together to create a single wireless network. The goal is to provide a reliable and consistent wireless signal across a large home or workspace.


Facebook And Bad Guy Governments

What’s New: A Facebook “whistleblower” says authoritarian regimes are using the social media network to track and manipulate users — particularly oppressed minorities and political dissidents.

Why This Matters: While only a very small part of the testimony, these statements clearly got the attention of lawmakers and dedicated hearings on the subject are very likely in the near- to mid-term.

Key Points:

  • Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection on Tuesday.

  • When asked by one Senator if “authoritarian or terrorist-based leaders” use the platform, she responded that this is “definitely” happening and that the company is “very aware” of this activity.

  • Before leaving Facebook, Haugen worked on the company’s counterespionage team, which she explained, “directly worked on tracking Chinese participation on the platform, surveilling, say, Uyghur populations around the world.”

  • She also claimed that Facebook content directly led to ethnic violence in places like Myanmar and Ethiopia.

"My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning,” said Haugen. “What we saw in Myanmar and now in Ethiopia are the opening chapters of a story so terrifying no one wants to read the end of it."

What I’m Thinking:

  • Exactly 0% of this is new or shocking; but, it’s still important. Facebook itself has said everything Haugen claimed, and more. For example, earlier this Summer, the company’s head of cyber espionage investigations, Mike Dvilyanski, reported Facebook disabled nearly 200 “operational accounts” associated with Iranian spying. Similarly, the fact that the Chinese government uses social media to track dissidents and to propagandize all of us should shock no one. That said, I welcome more Congressional scrutiny regarding the national security implications of social media and their utility to hostile foreign powers. In fact, I’d relish the opportunity to testify at such a hearing (shameless plug).

  • Facebook has a counterespionage team — take that in. I know from my engagements with the company that they have more than 200 people working counterterrorism issues. There are hundreds more working cyber attacks, foreign influence, human trafficking, and other transnational issues. And this has been the case for years. While Haugen said foreign government activities on the platform are due to “consistent understaffing” of these teams, I can tell you these numbers rival or eclipse the number of people working these issues at some government agencies. There’s always more mission than people. But the key point here is that a social media company rightly understands that it needs an in-house intelligence community to operate effectively and safely. This is what I mean when I say that the national security burden is spreading to the private sector.

  • There’s more to it than what she said. You would not call me a friend of Facebook. I think social media in general is awful and I think Zuckerberg’s creation has been a particularly bad dumpster fire. But I also know firsthand some of the things the company does to mitigate the risks raised by this former employee, and they’re impressive. Further, just like government intelligence operations, there’s always a tradeoff when it comes to knocking down bad guy accounts. Sure, you get rid of them for a few minutes before they open a new account, but you also loose a critical “intelligence window” into their intentions, techniques, and capabilities. Facebook has done some innovative work in this regard, but it’s better for everyone if this isn’t talked about publicly. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.

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Evolutions in American and British INTEL

What’s New: Intelligence agencies in the United States and United Kingdom have announced a series of changes aimed at optimizing for the digital age.

Why This Matters: These changes are yet another indicator that China is THE key foreign policy challenge, that “cyber” is now a mainstream intelligence mission, and that the U.S. and U.K. are laying the groundwork for increased tensions in Asia.

Key Points:

  • Yesterday, CIA Director William J. Burns announced that Langley is forming the China Mission Center (CMC) and a Transnational and Technology Mission Center (TTMC).

  • The CMC will “address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China that cuts across all of the Agency’s mission areas,” according to a CIA press release.

“CMC will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government,” Director Burns said.

  • The TTMC will “address global issues critical to US competitiveness—including new and emerging technologies, economic security, climate change, and global health.”

  • The U.K., for its part, also formally announced the creation of its National Cyber Force (NCF) — a unit dedicated to offensive cyber operations, according to an announcement.

  • The NCF currently has a few hundred personnel but is expected to grow to 3,000 people. It will be staffed from around the British government, including the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Ministry of Defense, MI6, and the Defense Science and Technology Lab.

  • The NCF will be the offensive counterpart to the country’s defensive cyber team at GCHQ — the National Cyber Security Center.

What I’m Thinking:

  • “Centers” mean focus, resources, and greater efficiency (at least they’re supposed to). The CIA’s creation of the CMC and TTMC are a continuation of trend that gained real traction with the creation of the Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) in 1986. At the time, CIA analysts and operators largely operated separately — with the “squints” in analysis rarely engaging directly with the “jocks” in operations. But a series of terrorist operations in the early- and mid-80s pushed the Agency to integrate intelligence and operations as well as other members of the U.S. Intelligence Community into one unit with a shared mission. This greatly improved counterterrorism collection, analysis, and operations. Since then, Centers have been used to provide similar focus and efficiency on the most pressing challenges. It also consolidates responsibilities and reporting lines so that the director of the CIA can maintain better awareness and influence over these issues and resources.

  • The U.K.’s NCF is not a new capability, but will be an increase in focus and resources. The Brits have been doing offensive cyber for a while — and they’re good at it. But, it is significant that they’re publicly trumpeting the creation of a pretty large offensive cyber force and promising to do something with it. Asked if the NCF would attack another country’s critical infrastructure, British Minister of Defense Ben Wallace said, “It would be a dereliction of duty if these capabilities weren't on our shelves.” Well then, giddy-up.

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Scarlet Dragon Uses AI for Target Selection

What’s New: The U.S. Army’s Scarlet Dragon exercise is testing how AI might be used on future battlefields, according to Defense One.

Why This Matters: This is the fourth iteration of the exercise and is aimed at using multiple AI data streams to find and hit pre-invasion targets.

Key Points:

  • Scarlet Dragon is employing the same software behind Project Maven, but instead of using video footage from drones, this effort is using satellite imagery.

  • The use of overhead imagery would significantly expand the area of operation where AI can be effectively employed — and it’s working.

  • Multiple ranges — from Georgia to Virginia — with thousands of possible targets spread over 7,200km are being used in the exercise.

“We conducted an experiment here to see how many targets we could find in an hour,” said Col. Joe O’Callaghan. But they found that “the metric wasn’t how many targets we could find in an hour, it was how many decisions we could make in an hour.” His team “exponentially made more decisions than we even thought possible. So much that the number of decisions we were making was causing legacy computer systems to crash because we were exceeding their capability to take sequentially-derived targets. The volume of targets proceeding in parallel surpassed sequential technology,” he said. 

What I’m Thinking:

  • This is the kind of mission where AI excels. Image recognition is a sweet spot for AI systems because it’s all about pattern recognition and because there’s tons and tons of training data. It is precisely this kind of capability that will be essential for “over-the-horizon” operations. Government and civilian satellite coverage will soon blanket the earth and AI systems like this will quickly examine this information and autonomously identify images of interest. While it’s not a replacement for “boots on the ground” intelligence, it does greatly improve American situational awareness at scale. Of course, as the good colonel says, you’ve gotta have servers and computers that can handle the accompanying data load to make this all work. But we’ll get there.

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