Thursday, June 01, 2017

Conducting Psywar with a Bot Army - I

This is a scenario I thought up for how you might use a Bot army to fight a psywar.  I feel this is increasingly relevant as Team Trump turns towards its old and faithful methods from the 2016 campaign period.

There are few fundamental constraints on the functioning of a bot army (if it helps try to think of the Trade Federation's Droid Army in Star Wars), I list these below.

1) Bots cannot be created without human intervention.

  • Without at least appearing human, people will not take  the bots seriously. Creating human appearing bots with the right level of geolocation and context is hard and expensive work.  This is work that has to be done painstakingly by hand usually in places where labor is cheap. Places like India and Pakistan are good places to stage such high quality bot armies because rudimentary software labor is cheap here. Bot Armies with high levels of human simulation will be more expensive to rent/own.
  • Bot Armies can be build with automated scripts that are by humans. You need experienced programmers to do this right. This kind of labor is cheaper in Russia. A few hundred programmers could create millions of bots over a period of a few months. A script generated bot army will have a very low level of simulated humanity as the resources needed for contextualization are large. These bots will be cheaper to rent/own.
  • In order to relay any messages via the bot army, one will need to access a set of broadcast commands. Each bot army will have a hierarchy, much like any military unit, the message will have to be first sent to a command account, which in turn will send the message down to lower level bots. The lowest level bot will put that message to the targets. This will introduce a unique signature into the response of each bot army. The times between relay events will be very unique to each army. 
  • The message being repeated will have to be crafted by humans at a control center. The control center will relay the message to a distribution center which in turn will send the message to the bot army command accounts. 
  • A bot army will not be able to function as effectively without extensive support from real human operators. A call center like operation will have to be set up to inject real human testimonials into bot army operations to ensure that the message is not seen as a provocation. This is where the Internet Research Agency's "Pie from Apples" crowd comes in. Additional human support  may be press ganged through zombie accounts which have been maliciously acquired. 
2) Every bot army most likely has a kill function. This is a common feature of malware, the creators always put in something to ensure that the army doesn't get turned on them or to ensure that anyone they sell the army to pays the rent on time. The bot army will be hosted on a server or group of servers, and it will likely be polling one of the server ports or a DNS server for the kill command. If the kill command is received, the bot army will cease to repeat.  It may even be that the bot army command account auto-deletes all sub-units. 

3) A bot army's most valuable aspect is its secrecy. Once it is deployed, it is essentially compromised as the patterns of activity will be directly visible. As the timescales associated with creating new bot armies is large, the control center will deploy the bot armies in a phased fashion. With each re-use, the bot army's effectiveness will degrade.  This will create a demand structure for new bot armies which will shift pricing as the replacements become scarce. Running a cost effective bot army deployment will mean limiting the exposure of the army until a replacement is available at a reasonable price. 

4) Staging and deploying a bot army will also require significant server space and cloud operations capability. The will also be significant spikes in internet traffic associated with the bot army operation. All of this will cost a great deal of money. 

5) Given the resources constrained nature of bot army deployment, it will be ideal to use the bot army against a high value targets first. The first messages relayed by the bot army will be essentially aimed at degrading the credibility of opposing information sources. Opposing information sources can easily expose the lack of factual content in the bot army's message. 

Now that we have seen some of the major constraints at play with a bot army, in my next post on this issue, I will lay out the most likely scenario for a bot army attack on the US media via Twitter+Soc media. 

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