A New Info Paradigm? From Genes to ‘Big Data’

October 2014 No Comments

8th Annual SMA Conference: A New Information Paradigm? From Genes to ‘Big Data’ and Instagram to Persistent Surveillance…Implications for National Security.

Author | Editor: Cabayan, H. (Joint Staff) & Canna, S. (NSI, Inc).

We live in an age characterized by the reshaping of society through the presence of information and networks. The proliferation of information technologies from the micro and instantaneous to the insights hidden in “big data” has generated a range of new issues with implications for global transformation and political power shifts, patterns of conflict and warfare, and potential opportunities for enhancing global stability. The time is right for a thorough consideration of the implications of this “age” on US national security issues. How can we best understand the near-term and long-term consequences of these changes? What adaptations to our current intellectual frameworks, intelligence processes, organizational structures, command and control practices and planning approaches may be necessary? In short, how can the United States Government (USG) and its allies recognize the risks as well as the opportunities for enhanced global security presented by fuller realization of the “information age”?

The intent of the Conference was to examine the implications of the information/network age. What are its key dynamics? What impact do these dynamics have on national security-related topics? And, what changes in USG modes of planning, operation, policy development, and military capabilities are needed to mitigate information age risks while simultaneously recognizing and seizing opportunities?

The 2014 Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) Conference focused on these opportunities and challenges from various perspectives and disciplines including neuroscience, behavioral and social sciences, and operational strategy. Emphasis was placed on the need to interweave these various disciplines and perspectives. As in previous years, the conference sought to address the needs of the Geographical Commands. Representatives from the Commands discussed their pressing needs and key operational requirements. SMA’s wide network of experts as well as conference participants assisted in identifying and discussing capabilities that could match these needs.

Opening Session

CAPT Todd Veazie, NCTC, opened the conference. He stated that SMA’s objective is to provide deep contextual orientation and decision quality assessment to warfighting commanders on intractable problems. Brig. Gen. David Béen, JS/JL39, added that SMA’s multi-disciplinary, multi-agency approach does not exist anywhere else in the Department of Defense (DoD). We are living in challenging times, and we need multidisciplinary expertise from across industry, academia, think tanks, and others.

Mr. Ben Riley, PD DASD (EC&P), then questioned whether we are in a different or unique era compared to any other time in history. The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) studied this question and determined that today is similar to the pre-World War I era in terms of a recent revolution (industrial and information respectively), rise of great powers, struggle of traditional nation states, and global communications advances. He emphasized that it is critical that we understand that global events arise from previous conflict, conditions, and events.

Keynote Speaker: LTG Ed Cardon, US ARMY Cyber Command

LTG Cardon stated that he believes we are in a new global paradigm brought about by the information/technical revolution. Due to this, threats and vulnerabilities are increasing, often in highly complex ways. The US military is dominant in the operational environment, but is losing strategically because we struggle in the information environment. We are in a political struggle and cyber operations are key to success in this area. Cyber operations could be used in all phases of conflict, but particularly in phase 0 and phase 1. He hoped that organizations like SMA could help bridge the gap between the operational and information environments.

Keynote Speaker: Admiral Michael Rogers, Commander, U.S. Cyber Command and Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service

ADM Rogers stated that in the digital age, the DoD has to be an agile organization that is capable of quickly building communities of interest in response to wide-ranging, unanticipated crises (such as Ebola). Big data provide new opportunities to distill critical information from the noise to generate insight and knowledge. However, in order to harness the power of information, we have to create partnerships with individuals and organizations we have never worked with before from the private sector, industry, academia, NGOs, think tanks, individuals, and others. That is why the tools and methodologies developed by the SMA community are so important.


Panel One examined complexity, interdependence, and emergence in an interconnected information age. The demographic/age change we are experiencing is the central issue facing the United States today because of newly emerging threats and opportunities that are arising and will continue to do so. It is essential to understand the nature and character as well as the dynamics of the information age. There is an incredible amount of data constantly being collected in the world today because of the information boom, but the ultimate challenge is figuring out how to make sense of the signal in all of that noise to help better understand the emerging threats and opportunities. The world today consists of a very complex and uncertain environment characterized through interconnectedness and increased competition over resources. Thus, it is time to shift our focus beyond predictability and instead focus more on sense making. We are overwhelmed with data and we need new tools and methodologies to use this data to make sense of an uncertain environment. The United States must start focusing on opportunities to shape the rapidly changing environment and ultimately become more strategic and adaptive in its planning. With the world today being in an age of transition, from the past we learn that the most important factor in determining the success or failure of world systems during times of transition is the system’s willingness or resistance to accept change. However, in reality, today we are rather conservative and overall resistant to change.

Panel Two discussed the information age, networks, and national security. In this new information age, which is defined by huge amounts of data, an abundance of information does not equal power. Instead, power is the ability to use information to define reality. Thus, communication plays a central role power. Using communication to define reality requires creative thinking—something that the intelligence community (IC) struggles with. Historically, the IC has been strong when it comes to critical thinking, but the IC and the US government as a whole often struggle when it comes to creative thinking. When trying to use information to define reality it is important to remember that different cultures use social media differently. If we are going to analyze social media, we must also understand how people in different parts of the world use and understand social media.

Panel Three explored patterns of conflict and warfare in the information age. Information technologies are changing the character of warfare due to advancements in networking, robotics, command and control, etc. This panel also explored how potential US adversaries might employ information technology to create narratives that develop sympathy for their cause and hinder US involvement and decision-making during a crisis. The panel found that the information age has made the world more transparent, which consequently makes the world more lethal for US forces. The panel also concluded that the information age has made political warfare (phase 0) more relevant. Russia and China are both engaged in political warfare with the United States.

Panel Four asked representatives from the Joint Staff and Commanders to discuss how the information revolution is shaping their worlds. They found a correlation of information environment to the national security environment. Adversaries and potential adversaries to US disadvantage are using the same freedoms the USG seeks to protect in an agile manner. Information is a combat multiplier but we are moving into an age where user-generated content allows adversaries the ability to employ the ever-growing list of social media that nation-states cannot match. How do we account for this trend? The panel found that when the USG tries to do information operations, it is sprinkled into the operational plan at the very end. It has to be baked in from the beginning to be effective. Additionally, panel members found that the answers to many of the challenges we face are hidden in the data and are only seen in hindsight. We need to move the identification of key factors closer to the decision-making calculus. Finally, panel members encouraged the DoD to find creative methods to better share information with partners and allies to achieve common objectives.

Panel Five discussed the intersections of big data, neuroscience, and national security. Big data helps allow for neuroscience insights to become operational. Linking big data to neuroscience is crucial in allowing for the use of neuroscience to provide utility in an operational environment. However, while significant advances are being made in the field of neuroscience (specifically in terms of big data collection), significant technology gaps exist. Furthermore, when operationalizing neuroscience it is important to realize there are a number of ethical and legal issues.

Panel Six examined how to understand social systems in phase 0 through human geography, big data, micro information, and the reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence (RSI) paradigm. When analyzing a problem, it is crucial to begin by defining the purpose, perspective, and process to make the best use of available information and have effective intelligence. The distinction between what problems you are trying to solve and why it is important to you drives what kind of intelligence is needed, why it is needed, and who needs it. While data can come in various forms and provide important insights into factors like location, place, region, movement, and human-environment interaction, to actually make use of the data, it is essential that the problem set is well defined in the beginning. Data can come in many different ways, but it is important that something like metadata, leveraged crowd sourced verification, etc. is provided along with the data to illustrate trustworthiness confidence levels, etc. Furthermore, in addition to understanding confidence levels, it is important to understand that very good data can sometimes be at a scale that is inappropriate for a given analysis and if this is the case the data may not be applicable.

Panel Seven explored the implications for US influence and deterrence capability of the nearly instantaneous availability of both large and micro data. The panel used the example of attempts to deter Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) activities to begin its discussion of the impact of immediate, global communications on the effectiveness of US deterrence messages. The panel suggested that a strategic imperative for the US is to make sure that our messages, whether kinetic or informational, do not embolden or inadvertently strengthen potential adversaries. Although some argue that we need to respond quickly to opportunities to discredit or challenge adversary narratives, the USG has extremely limited capacity to change the worldviews of people in different culture and environments. There is some academic research and analysis describing countering specific adversary messages as a means of deterring unfavorable behaviors but very little that supports the notion of changing basic narratives. These research efforts need to be better operationalized for the DoD community. Furthermore, US words and deeds must be synchronized, as they are both forms of communication.

Panel Eight discussed what is in store for the Pacific Region and specifically U.S.L China relations amidst the information revolution. Over half of the world’s population resides in USPACOM’s area of responsibility (AOR), which consists of 36 nations and offers a number of unique characteristics and challenges. As two global superpowers, the U.S.-China relationship will shape the Pacific Region going forward. In order to build trust and improve security within the U.S.-China relationship and throughout the Pacific Region overall amidst the ongoing information revolution, we must understand and improve connectivity, communication/language, cultural understanding, confidence/confidentiality, collaboration, coordination, and cooperation. The information revolution has provided us with new methods of communication as well as the ability to better assess our effectiveness in our relationship with China. For the first time, we have the opportunity to fully understand communications with China. The next step will be to use communication as a means to deter and drive a specific outcome. China and the U.S. diverge on some aspects of the Internet including desired regulation levels and hacking and cyber-crime concerns and activities, all of which will influence the U.S.-China relationship going forward.

Panel Nine asked representatives from the Commands to discuss what they have learned at the conference, what they will be taking back from the conference, and where they anticipate needing further assistance. One takeaway was that the USG is not clearly messaging its own narrative. We need to focus on strengthening our own narrative in the information age. A second takeaway was the main targets of insight of many discussions were political officials. If these topics are not raised to these decision makers, we risk talking to ourselves. A third takeaway was that the information revolution is unlike other revolutions that were based on breakthrough inventions; the IT revolution continues to advance and expand. The thing we must manage is not the technology itself, but rather the evolution of that technology. A fourth takeaway is that operating in this new world requires building partnership and communities with unconventional partners within and outside of the USG. But progress in this area is impeded by an overly burdensome classification system. Finally, open source information is underutilized, particularly as non-kinetic (political) warfare become more prominent.


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