126. Nowhere to Hide: Information Exploitation and Sanitization

[Editor’s Note:  In today’s post, Mad Scientist Laboratory explores how humankind’s recent exponential growth in interconnectivity will continue to affect warfare in the Future Operational Environment.  Using several contemporary use cases, we identify a number of vulnerabilities that have already been exploited by our adversaries.  The U.S. Army must learn how to sanitize its information signatures while simultaneously exploit those presented by our adversaries.  As previously stated on this site by COL Stefan J. Banach (USA-Ret.),  “Virtual Space is the decisive terrain and securing it is the decisive operation.]

Internet of Battle Things (IOBT) / Source: Alexander Kott, ARL

The timeless competition of finders vs. hiders is a key characteristic of the Future Operational Environment (FOE). Through the proliferation of sensors creating the Internet of Battlefield Things (IoBT), ubiquitous global communication, and pervasive personal electronic devices, the finders will be ascendant on the battlefield. They have more advantages and access than ever before – with the ability to make impactful non-kinetic action – and the hiders are creating bigger, enduring, and more conspicuous signatures. In the FOE, our ability to wade through the petabytes of raw sensor and communications data input to generate a Common Operating Picture and arrive at actionable courses of action will be significantly challenged. Will we be able to sanitize Blue Forces’ signatures to prevent our adversaries from detecting and exploiting similar information, while simultaneously seeing through Red Forces’ deception measures to strike decisively?

A recent example highlighting the inherent and unpredictable vulnerabilities presented by these emerging technologies is the incident involving personal fitness devices that track users via GPS. Many military personnel have used these devices to track personal performance while conducting physical fitness training.  The associated tracking information was transmitted back to fitness-tracking company Strava, where it was aggregated and then published as maps that were then made available to the public. Unfortunately, these maps contained articulate outlines of PT routes in and around military bases, the locations of which were not intended to be made public. This now publically available information inadvertently provided our adversaries with sensitive information that, in years past, would have required considerable time and other resources to acquire.

In response, the DoD issued a memorandum through Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan effectively banning the use of geolocation capabilities in operational areas. While there was swift policy resolution in this case, albeit after-the-fact, there are a number of continuing and emergent threats presented by the information age that still need to be addressed.

In the previous example, the culprit was a smart watch or fitness tracking device that is a companion piece to the smart phone. Removing or prohibiting these devices is less detrimental to the overall morale, spirit, and will power of our Soldiers than removing their cell phones — their primary means of voice, data, and social media connectivity — oftentimes their sole link with their family back home. Adversaries have already employed tactics designed to exploit vulnerabilities arising from Soldier cellphone use. In the Ukraine, a popular Russian tactic is to send spoofed text messages to Ukrainian soldiers informing them that their support battalion has retreated, their bank account has been exhausted, or that they are simply surrounded and have been abandoned. Taking it one step further, they have even sent false messages to the families of soldiers informing them that their loved one was killed in action.

Russian 9a52-4 MLRS conducting a fire mission / Source: The National Interest

This sets off a chain of events where the family member will immediately call or text the soldier, followed by another spoofed message to the original phone. With a high number of messages to enough targets, an artillery strike is called in on the area where an excess of cellphone usage has been detected.

Similarly, a NATO red team was able to easily infiltrate their own forces through information gathered on social media sites – amassing locations, dates, and other data – to influence their Soldiers’ behavior.  Facebook and Instagram allowed them to track Soldiers, determine exact locations of exercises, and identify all members of a certain unit.

Hamas employed a similar tactic against Israeli Defense Force soldiers, using fake accounts to pose as attractive women in honey trap operations to access sensitive operational information.

Each of these examples illustrate recent, low-cost, and effective means of deception. Device exploitation, the over-sharing of sensitive data, and the challenge in determining information credibility will only increase as connected devices continue to both proliferate and transition from being portable and wearable to embeddable and implantable. The following questions must be addressed by the U.S. Army:

– How can we sanitize ourselves to mitigate these and other vulnerabilities from adversely affecting us operationally on future battlefields?

– How do we ensure that the information we are receiving and processing is legitimate and that we are not being spoofed?

– How are we preparing to exploit similar vulnerabilities in our adversaries?

Fictitious 1st Army Group patch. Commanded by then LTG George S. Patton, to deceive the Germans prior to the invasion of France

– Is this even possible in a hyper-connected and complex battlefield or are we destined to be on the wrong side of some future Operation Fortitude, where effective military deception helped ensure the success GEN Eisenhower’s Great Crusade to liberate Europe from the Nazis in World War II?

One final thought — geolocation information and high resolution remote sensing capabilities, which only a short decade and a half ago were limited to a handful of national intelligence services, have entered into a new, democratized era.  As recently demonstrated in three warzone use casesanyone (including non-spacefaring nations, non-state actors, and super-empowered individuals) can now access current and past imagery to generate high resolution, three dimensional views for geolocation, analysis, and (unfortunately) exploitation.  The convergence of this capability with the proliferation of personalized information signatures truly means that there is “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide.”  (Crank it up with Martha and the Vandellas!)

If you enjoyed this post, please also read the following blog posts addressing the weaponization of social media, the future of battlefield deception, and virtual warfare:

18. Mad Scientist FY17: A Retrospective

With the Holiday celebrations behind us, Mad Scientist Laboratory believes a retrospective of FY17 is in order to recap the key points learned about the Future Operational Environment (OE).

Our first event in 2017 was the Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Autonomy Conference, facilitated with Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) in Atlanta, Georgia, 7-8 March 2017. Key findings that emerged from this event include:

All things in the future OE will be smart, connected, and self-organizing. The commercial Internet of Things (IoT) will turn into a militarized Internet of Battle Things (IoBT).



Narrow Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here today and is beginning to show up on the battlefield. Near peer competitors and non-state actors will have access to these technologies on pace with the United States due to commercial and open source availability of algorithms.

AI and humans must co-evolve. It is not clear that the singularity (i.e., AI leading to a “runaway reaction” of self-improvement cycles, ultimately resulting in a super intelligence far surpassing human intelligence) will be realized in the period leading up to 2050. Human teaming with AI enablers will be the best instantiation of general intelligence supporting Commanders on the future battlefield. Next steps towards singularity are systems that can reflect, have curiosity, and demonstrate teamwork.

The physical and virtual spaces will merge. Augmented and virtual reality will become more than a gaming platform focused on entertainment but a global communication platform delivering unique expertise to the battlefield to include medical and language skills.

Convergence is a key attribute in all aspects of the future battlefield. Expect convergence of capability, sensors, power onto systems, uniforms, and in the far term humanity itself.

Our Enemy after Next Conference, facilitated with NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, on 11-12 April 2017 led to the following conclusions:

The next fight will be characterized by electrons vs electrons. All belligerents will seek to hide themselves and blind their enemies. The fight after next will be characterized by AI vs AI (algorithm vs algorithm). How AI is structured and integrated will be the strategic advantage.

Information Warfare is taking on new meaning. Humans now have a personal relationship with their information and virtual reality and holograms in your living room will create new opportunities for swaying populations.

Major competitions in the war after next include – cyber-attack vs AI, stealth vs detection, directed energy vs hardening, space vs counter-space, strikers vs shielders.



We are in a 10 year window of a change in how we think about space. Space is now competitive as Super-Empowered Individuals, non-state actors, and near peer competitors have near equal access. One major game changer is the commercial move towards a Low Earth Orbit space constellation consisting of thousands of small satellites.

There is a real tension between the idea that ubiquitous sensors and real time upload of data onto the cloud will make it impossible to hide and that the near equal access of capabilities across all parties will make war constant.

At the Visualizing Multi-Domain Battle 2030 – 2050 Conference, facilitated with Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on 25-26 July 2017, Mad Scientists determined:

The definition of maneuver should be expanded to include maneuvering ideas as well as forces to a position of advantage. A globally connected world and social media platforms have amplified the importance of ideas and the information dimension.

Bio convergence with advanced computing is happening at the edge. Humans will become part of the network connected through their embedded and worn devices. From transhumanism to theorizing about uploading the brain, it will not be the IoT but the internet of everything (including humans).

Smart cities are leaving the edge and early adopters and becoming mainstream. The data collected by billions of sensors will be a treasure trove for the country and Armed forces that learn to exploit. Passive collection of this information might be a significant advantage in winning the hiders v finders competition.

Cognitive enhancement and attacking the brains (neurological system) of humans is not science fiction. The U.S. Army should establish a PEO for Soldier Enhancement to bring unity of purpose to a range of capabilities from physical/mental enhancement with wearables, embeddables, stimulants, brain gyms, and exoskeletons.

Human enhancement, the unlocking of the genome, and improving artificial intelligence will stress the Army’s policies and ethics. In any case, our 4 + 1 potential adversaries are exploring using all three of these capabilities as a way to gain advantage over U.S. Forces. This is not a 2050 problem but more than likely a 2030 reality.

The Mad Scientist Initiative employs Crowdsourcing and Story Telling as two innovative tools to help us envision future possibilities and inform the OE through 2050. In our FY17 Science Fiction Writing Contest, we asked our community of action to describe Warfare in 2030-2050. We received an overwhelming response of 150 submissions from Mad Scientists around the globe. From them, we discerned the following key themes:

Virtually every new technology is connected and intersecting to other new technologies and advances. Convergence frequently occurred across numerous technologies. Advances in materials, AI, drones, communications, and human enhancement amplified and drove one another across multiple domains.

A major cultural divide and gulf in understanding still existed between different populations even with developments in technology (including real-time language translators).



The fully enmeshed communications and sensing residing in future systems made the hiders vs. finders competition ever more important in future conflict settings.

Due to the exponential speed of interaction on the battlefield (during and in between high-intensity conflict), a number of the military units required smaller formations, with large effects capabilities and more authority, and operated under flat and dispersed command and control structures.

The constant battle for and over information often meant victory or failure for each side.





2018 is shaping up to be even more enlightening, with Mad Scientist conferences addressing Bio Convergence and Soldier 2050 and Learning in 2050. We will also support a Smart and Resilient Installations franchise event, hosted by the Army Secretariat. Stay tuned to the Mad Scientist Laboratory for more information on the year ahead!