Friday, April 22, 2022

Weaponized Personal Data

Wars have a way of bringing out the best and worst qualities in humans.  Courage, selflessness, loyalty, discipline, perseverance are all virtues that stand out.  Likewise, the sins of man are on full display whenever there are wars, and are likely the cause of them.  One of the things that makes the war in Ukraine so uniquely horrible is the amount of participants' personal data being captured, analyzed against social media sites, and then shared with family members and the public.  Artificial intelligence, trained on billions of social media posts, can identify just about anyone and any military personnel today.  Once identified, personal information can be associated with them and stories told - true or not.

Jack McDonald, a senior lecturer in war studies at King’s College London, was quoted by Wired as saying, "Openly publishing lists of your opponent[s], particularly at the scale that digital operations appear to allow, seems very new.” What kind of information is being shared with the public? Names, birthdays, passport numbers, job titles and photos of them in death.

Why would personal information be weaponized in this way and shared with the public and the victims' families?  John Boyd, an American military strategist, taught the ultimate objective of an army is not to kill more enemy on the battlefield, but rather to create mental trauma, disorder, confusion, distrust and the "loss of will" to continue.  For those reasons, personal data is being weaponized to attack the mental state of an opponent, their families and their country.  That is not justification, or a defense of said practice, but it is their reasoning.  Here are some examples from the headlines in the past two weeks.
  • Personal information associated with the 1,600 Russian troops who served in Bucha, a Ukrainian city where unconscionable atrocities and war crimes were committed, was released to the public by organizations supporting the Ukraine.  The personal information was shared along with the details of the war crimes the troops allegedly committed.  
  • Ukraine’s intelligence services released the names and contact details of 620 Russian spies that allegedly work for the FSB, Russia's main security agency.  This is not common practice as these names are typically kept secret by all parties.
  • Newsweek reported that numerous online photos depict Russia soldiers mailing home loot stolen in the Ukraine.  Facial recognition software was able to identify the soldiers and their personal details were made public.
  • Intercepted phone calls between Russian soldiers and their families are regularly being published as part of information operations activities by Ukrainian forces.  The phone numbers are linked to social media accounts and the identities of the soldiers are revealed to the public.
  • Ukrainian officials are using facial recognition software from Clearview to identify deceased Russian soldiers left behind on the battlefield.  The software can scan billions of images from the internet and social media to identify a body.  The Ukraine is then controversially sending these images directly to the Russian soldiers' families to "inform them of the truth of the war," and to cause them mental and emotional trauma.  The Washington Post reports that the Ukraine military has run more than 8,600 facial recognition searches so far.
  • There have been numerous documented instances of soldiers using their smartphones in the field. These calls can be instantly pinpointed, which identifies the location of troops and invites attacks.
  • Photos from security cameras, smartphones, drones, etc., are capturing images by the millions. Crowdsourced intelligence efforts, and professional intelligence organizations using AI powered systems scan these images and identify the people in them and all other related information for any kind of useful intelligence. 
I don't think this is the world George Eastman and Henry A. Strong would have imagined when they formed Kodak in 1892.

Even before the Ukraine war, American military personnel were being victimized by nefarious use of personal information. A relative of mine entered the military and filled out detailed security background information in 2014, and soon because of a data breach, all of his personal history and information was stolen. The Washington Post reported on it, "Two major breaches of U.S. government databases holding personnel records and security-clearance files exposed sensitive information about at least 22.1 million people, including not only federal employees and contractors but their families and friends." Soon after those involved in the data breach used the personal information to extract money from his grandparents. This information is still out in there bouncing around the ether.
We, as a society, have not stopped long enough to ponder the merits and challenges of this world we are creating.  

Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist 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.