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Google Jigsaw CEO: All future wars will 'begin as cyber wars'

Michael B. Kelley
Head of Audience Development

The CEO of Google’s Jigsaw project, which studies the implications of technology on geopolitics, told the 2017 Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, that wars of the future will be driven by their cyber elements.

“I believe that all [future] wars are going to begin as cyber wars,” Jigsaw CEO Jared Cohen said on Tuesday. “And they’re not necessarily going to spill over into the physical domain. They’re going to unfold silently, invisibly, relatively inexpensively, and they’re going to really be defined by the marriage or the union of traditional hacking of systems and infrastructure with growing efforts that we’re increasingly seeing to hack the conversation and hack the discourse, which we’ve sort of largely thought of as these disinformation efforts.”

It should be noted that currently, conflicts that do not spill into the physical domain — specifically, those do not cause loss of life — are not generally considered to be acts of war. At the same time, cyber tactics are now being used as an integral part of warfare.

The 2008 Russian-Georgia war was the “first case in history of a coordinated cyberspace domain attack synchronized with major combat actions in the other warfighting domains (consisting of Land, Air, Sea, and Space).” Cohen noted that current conflicts in Ukraine and Syria — which both include heavy Russian involvement — include aspects of physical war, hacking of systems, and disinformation campaigns.

A Russian officer takes photos of Russian tanks as they arrive at a train station in the Crimean settlement of Gvardeiskoye near the city of Simferopol, Ukraine, March 31, 2014.

“Historically, violence has been used to destabilize the physical state,” Cohen said. “But how well a society is able to function is an aggregate of its physical stability and its digital stability. So if violence is how one destabilizes the physical state, then the erosion of truth and the sort of prevention of the free flow of information is how the information side of the state gets destabilized.”

‘The goal there is to foment chaos’

Cohen explained that there are various tactics that nation-states now use to disrupt the information space. One is fake news, which is “the digital equivalent or the next chapter of propaganda.” The second is patriotic trolling, which is “when cyberbullying becomes better organized, better funded, and state-sponsored.”

Cohen noted that when Turkish President Erdogan “decides that he doesn’t want to tolerate independent journalism, he deploys state-sponsored trolls to attack female journalists with dozens of rape threats every single minute across multiple platforms. And this has a profound impact on taking key influencers out of the conversation.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting of his ruling AK Party (AKP) in Istanbul, Turkey, August 20, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The third tactic Cohen described involved the “digital equivalent of paramilitaries. This is governments creating fabricated accounts based on stolen photos that are designed to represent key constituencies in far away societies. They build up these accounts to look and feel like the people that you think you’re interacting with and then they look for trending conversations around the world that they don’t like that represent fissures in other countries, societies, and they strategically deploy these accounts to interact with you and me.

“And the goal there is to foment chaos,” Cohen added. “At times, it’s to flip an outcome. They use these to disseminate secrets. And at times, they even try to use them to organize offline events.”

The U.S. has accused Russia of using a government-backed troll farm to systemically fabricate social media accounts pretending to be various disaffected groups of Americans. The accounts and networks were used in 2015 and 2016 to exacerbate existing tensions in American society, spread information damaging to the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, and organized local events pitting Americans against each other.


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