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Crowdsourcing Conflict: A New Era of Cyber Espionage and Warfare

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines has been devastated by the power of Mother Nature. As relief efforts continue, a humanitarian mission has been requested to help in the efforts, yet it is a relatively new phenomenon which hardly fits the traditional mold of disaster relief. It is an online initiative run by volunteers and researchers who will examine images and posts on social media and across the web, tag their location and rate the damage. By doing this over and again, the organizations enlisted by the Philippine government have essentially crowdsourced the creation of a damage map to direct the most urgent disaster relief efforts. This new initiative begs the question: what if that devastating force wasn’t a natural disaster, but a military assault?

Crowdsourcing damage assessment and information mapping has become an asset in humanitarian and disaster relief missions – within the last 3 years, one organisation alone has already been deployed at least 27 times. As technology spreads and social media continues to integrate the world online, such efforts are made increasingly simple by the availability of data, but are complicated by the sheer volume of it. To manage the input, organizations such as MicroMappers,  The Standby Task Force and others allow a greater number of volunteers to aid in their mission. As experience grows and the volunteers become more diverse, some will branch out and form organizations with other interests, while other groups will be co-opting a similar model – the STF was deployed as part of a simulation by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in March 2013.  At the very least, this highlights this government’s interest.

Inevitably, the intelligence community will be looking to co-opt this crowdsourcing. If it is able to do so however, it will need organizations that can note points of interest that would require their expertise to investigate. Just like the volunteers in the Philippines mapping and tagging damage, so would these volunteers map and tag anything in images and social media posts that they noted as a threat. The organizations would naturally need a minimal security clearance, though defectors or double-agents within the organizations would be checked simply by the number of other actors processing the same information. So the creation of a threat map is complete, and is able to allow intelligence analysts to devote more time to verifying and further investigating specific targets. The use of social media, could also allow such a map and its information to be updated and collated in near-real time – shortening the window that might otherwise be necessary for intelligence agencies to gather or at least verify the same information.

This scenario is most plausible in situations where technology and social media are widespread.  This is already becoming less of an issue as social media usage expands further over the globe.  It is also probable that the Threat Map would be created for defensive purposes, or in solidarity to help another nation, people, or organization under attack.  A nation on the offensive would still have to rely mostly on its Intelligence Community, as they would be far more trustworthy than crowdsourcing when a state is more likely to face both internal and external opposition

In cases such as this then, where the nations in conflict are technologically integrated and where social media has a following, there is massive potential to utilize this crowdsourced espionage for partisans or insurgents behind enemy lines. While it could never replace the existing methodology or requirement for intelligence agents in such a context, it could at least offer a new crowdsourced streamlining for threat assessment and locating positions for state sponsored – or at least popular, paramilitary organizations.

Crowdsourcing technology might also find its niche in intelligence operations as a tool for paramilitary forces and insurgents, directed by intelligence agencies. It could offer them more direct, specifically local and closer to real-time intelligence to put into action. In the right hands and given time to fine tune its use, the impact of this cyber crowdsourcing may well be the swing in a war or a battle if it is secured from cyber attacks.

The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 demonstrates how the principles that would drive and sustain the system described above do exist, but also because it showcases an underlying threat. The underlying principle is that expatriates and non-military actors will involve themselves in the cyber-front of a conflict, and that many threats have become digital. For Russia and Georgia, online warfare became an important theatre as media networks, government sites and resources were all subject to denial of service attacks and hijacking. Largely, this was done by suspected Russian sponsored actors, but Georgian expatriates also became involved in the conflict and leveraged their resources in the fight. Foreign governments followed by lending their support after requests from Georgia, and provided contacts within hacker communities.

Naturally, the entire system and the threat map itself would have to be secured in order to operate effectively. Although such considerations go beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that security and vulnerability are rarely imbalanced for long and that major governments are devoting significant resources to keep pace with cyber security. The expansion of cyber-intelligence would necessitate an expansion of the breadth of cyber-warfare, drawing in civilian populations like never before.

Other considerations, such as the ethics of such an unprecedented crowdsourcing initiative go beyond this article. Indeed, there may not be an applicable judgement, beyond what individuals feel they ought to do themselves. This itself will prove the driving force behind the crowdsourcing of threat maps and the civilian participation in digital intelligence and warfare.


-Adam Templer


Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Defence Images

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