Monday, April 12, 2021

Social Engineering Escapes the War Zone

The phrase social engineering splashed into the public's view as a result of actions from a cluster of companies whose services focused on influencing and manipulating people's thinking.  The history of these companies is complex, but seems to have all started with Strategic Communication Laboratories, which became SCL Ltd, then it became SCL Group, which then created a subsidiary called Behavioral Dynamics Institute (BDI) and another subsidiary infamously known as Cambridge Analytica, a company that was intimately involved in influencing US voters during the 2016 elections.  Cambridge Analytica stated at the time that their expertise was in "behavior change," "military influence campaigns," "psychographic segmentation" and other types of mind-manipulation.

SCL Group's services focused on psychological operations (psyops), which is a strategy to alter people's minds through the use of rumours, disinformation, bots, fictitious accounts and fake news.  The BDI subsidiary claimed they had several leading psychologists and strategists on staff that developed tools to better understand audiences and to shape their behaviors.  They claimed they had invested over $25 million USD in developing scientific approaches for "influencing target audiences." They provided services such as delivering training in counter-Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe funded by the Government of Canada, as well as conducting research on target audience analysis which has influenced counter-insurgency doctrine. 

One of SCL's experts was Steve Tatham, a former British naval expert in psychological operations.  One of his areas of expertise was "identifying “key groups through accurate behavioral profiling of groups,” and ranking them by their respective influence and susceptibility to influence."  SCL perfected these techniques while working for defence agencies ranging from the British Foreign Office, the Norwegian Government Defense Research Agency, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the British Army’s Psychological Operations Group, and multiple U.S. defence and intelligence agencies. 

All of this defence and intelligence agency work helped SCL Group gain a lot of experience in executing mind-manipulation campaigns.   The big problems for them started when they decided to expand and start Cambridge Analytica for the purpose of offering these same military related mind-manipulation services to domestic politicians for use against their own people.  Emma Briant, a scholar of propaganda at Bard College, says the company’s mix of work demonstrates how military-funded psychological research can be exploited to wage domestic political warfare - a dangerous development.

The business and market for political mind-manipulation was born.  Techniques intended only for their enemies on the battlefield were now aimed at civilians in their own countries.

In 2014, the team at Cambridge Analytica obtained the Facebook data of 50 million Americans, analyzed the data, created psychographic profiles of them, and then uploaded the information to the tools they had for psychological warfare and aimed them at US voters.  Cambridge Analytica claimed to have 5,000 data points, including psychological scores of most American voters.  All of this is historical record available through any of your favorite sources of credible news.

In 2016 Cambridge Analytica took all of these data models and began micro-targeting American voters, reaching out with personalized messages to engage and influence voters and to begin raising funds based on each person's psychographic profile.

Social engineering is simply mind-manipulation at scale - made easy with social media platforms and messaging apps.  It is not conducive to an open democracy.  We, as a people, must somehow stop politicians of all flavors from using covert mind-manipulation as a tool for campaigning and winning elections.  

In addition, the effectiveness of these mind-manipulation strategies is not lost on commercial enterprises.  If we don't quickly legislate laws and regulations to govern these practices we will soon find our minds being increasingly manipulated for greed, as well as power.

Read more on the Future of Information, Truth and Influence here:
Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist | Leadership Strategies at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.