Big Data, Local Advantage: Why ‘Economic Media’ Networks Matter
A mobile device, like your smartphone or tablet, is 10,000 times more powerful than the computers that took man to the moon[i]. The application software (apps) on the device accesses more information than was created in the first 5,000 years of recorded human history[ii]. Seventy percent of humanity will own one by 2020[iii], which will connect around three Billion new users[iv]. The availability of this information conduit on the battlefield presents remarkable challenges and opportunities[v] for deploying commands.
Commanders must collect information through and participate on locally relevant app networks in order to mitigate the intrinsic parity of a fundamentally mobile information environment (IE). Connected populations are empowered by the capabilities of local app networks; they also attain physical and informational advantages against conventional formations. United States joint forces enable novel gains in the IE by collecting on, operating in, and collaborating through indigenously produced economic media. Failing to prepare for mobile, that is the wireless ecosystem, with a responsive engagement strategy adapted to local platforms and conditions, relinquishes the environment to U.S. adversaries.
In the past, U.S. forces targeted the cellphones of individual insurgents[vi]. Mobile, as a platform, has become more than just a telephone. Basic smartphone functions include a web browser, camera, and GPS navigation. The devices’ apps utilize such tools to form a cognitive, informational, and physical control plane, with the emergent qualities of an ecosystem.
The size and density of urban populations hosting such digital habitats continues to grow[vii] while average soldier density on the battlefield has decreased since at least the 19th century[viii]. Future combatants will need to influence local populations more effectively than any before them. Fortunately, urbanizing audiences are more connected than those encountered in contemporary experiences. Iraq[ix] and Afghanistan[x] average only 4.6 Internet users per square kilometer. Iran[xi] and Libya[xii], both identified as primary regional concerns by the assigned Combatant Commanders, respectively have 14.9[xiii] and 21.8[xiv] Internet users per square kilometer. In Nigeria, where Boko Haram remains a threat to the functioning government and neighboring states[xv], there are 73 Internet users per square kilometer[xvi]. Handheld devices will provide an increasing portion of Internet connectivity. Global mobile access will exceed fixed line subscriptions in 2017[xvii]. As of October 22, 2015, Google experienced more mobile searches than desktop searches worldwide.[xviii] Mobile connectivity will be the new normal of future operational environments (OEs).
Though mobile use is growing, users in the developing world aren't necessarily flocking to western social media platforms. Only 15 million of Nigeria's 92.6 million Internet users are on Facebook[xix], whereas 71% of America's users are 'friends'[xx]. Nigerian Facebook penetration more than doubled between 2012 and 2015, as did overall Internet use[xxi]; but the social network's relative size only grew by three percent. Twitter and Facebook are ubiquitous to American users; however, in the developing world users are instead downloading apps for the necessities of life.
Connectivity advances human and economic development[xxii] in ways that once required large scale state or commercial institutions[xxiii]. Mobile apps, built in the developing world, connect people with emergency medicine, deliver banking and commerce, provide market data and offer communication options. Instead of social media, select software and accompanying networks are ‘economic media.’ They represent “a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression[xxiv] relating to the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services”.[xxv] These apps are largely locally produced and are sometimes only regionally prevalent. Some examples of economic media in Africa include; Find-A-Med’s healthcare services, PesaCalc’s mobile banking, Slimtrader e-commerce, and M-Farm’s agricultural marketplace[xxvi].
Mobile empowerment is spreading across Africa, allowing people to access services and collaboration wherever and whenever they choose. Individual capabilities are outpacing the perception and means of contemporary formations; current US doctrine sparingly addresses social media,[xxvii] much less mobile networks. Mobile devices grant belligerent actors access to powerful tools that are similarly uninhibited by geography which is problematic to U.S. interests. During Libya's Arab Spring, otherwise untrained militias crowd sourced a live stream of weapons-intelligence and training out of the United States[xxviii]. Libyan revolutionaries received real-time intelligence analysis, via Skype conference call, to destroy a 122mm ‘Grad’ rocket battery during an April 2011 engagement.[xxix] The resistance also tracked Coalition strike aircraft via an open source air traffic control feed from Malta.[xxx]
Connection to these services remains feasible even if the authorities disable or jam a link. After the government shut down local service providers, protesters in Egypt created their own Bluetooth mesh network[xxxi]. The ‘hack’ even became a commercial app, FireChat, which enabled protestors in China to communicate despite government blackouts[xxxii]. It should be noted that Bluetooth uses frequency hopping[xxxiii] making it potentially jam resistant.
Joint forces create advantage if they can see and act fast enough to capitalize on the asymmetry offered by mobile computing. Like any other mission, intelligence drives operations in this 'virtual theater.'[xxxiv] Instead of monitoring terrestrial avenues of approach or key terrain, information gathering will be focused on the structures and the behaviors of the local network. The data is readily available. Advertisers conducting programmatic marketing[xxxv] and social scientists building ‘smart cities’[xxxvi] use it every day. Civilian organizations use “multi sourced data signals” from the user to inform decisions.[xxxvii] The data available for this target set is immense and increasingly relevant as more devices come online. Alternative data sources on things like foot traffic and purchase activity can provide measures of effectiveness that are otherwise very difficult to collect.
In 2012, IBM estimated that humanity produced 2.5 exabytes of data every day[xxxviii]. Collecting a local portion of relevant data brings a new perspective to the OE through the context of the digital ecosystem. Using digital models and graphic depictions, the array of smartphone empowered individuals forms a “socio-topologic surface” [xxxix] or multi-dimensional terrain of devices, moving data, as well as user content. Various software packages allow analysts to visually depict the presence and characteristics of nodes as well as the edges that connect them, revealing an apparent topography. Influencing a chosen node passes roughly calculable vibrations on to edges and following nodes, the way water reacts to a pebble being dropped in a pool of water, with classically predictable waves[xl]. The depicted system structures have sufficiently perceptible Newtonian characteristics to be modeled as a kind of topographic construct providing insight into physical behaviors and cognitive exchanges.
Depicting a network in this way facilitates analysis similar to the physical dimension. Nodes with high centrality, those with many connections or connecting distinct cliques,[xli] can be considered key terrain; repeatedly stimulated edges resemble avenues of approach, and so on. A commander can disrupt or reinforce a chosen part of the network pursuant to desired structural aims. He can also can influence part of this ‘distributed sensory system[xlii]’ to influence the behavior of a single node or clique.
Participation on economic media enables a force to solicit information without explicitly asking[xliii]. Aggregating collected data on node behaviors provides near real time situational awareness, exposing drivers of instability that might otherwise disappear among more apparent operational variables. Resources, like HealthMap, predict influenza outbreaks before patients know they’re sick[xliv]. By mining foreign app networks with programs like Mapsense, we can use dynamic vector map tiles[xlv] to render overlays that would take months to compile, much less update. Whether you want to track the most popular routes of runners in major cities[xlvi] or teen pregnancies[xlvii], there is probably an app providing the necessary data. This trend even applies to battlefield surveillance. Russian activities in both Ukraine[xlviii] and Syria[xlix] have been accurately tracked using the geotags of personal devices.
Combatant Commands (CCMDs) and specialized task forces already operate on social media. The Air Force exploits Twitter geotags to drive airstrikes against ISIS leadership[l]. Destroying mission command nodes remains doctrinally sound, but targeting at the CENTCOM level will not resolve the “local particularisms”[li] driving contemporary conflicts. Given the previous revelation on daily data creation and dividing by the approximation that there are around 3.2 billion Internet users[lii], each individual then produces around 800 megabytes a day. That data set is just too immense and diverse for any attempt to monitor more than a limited group of individuals on more than a few platforms across a continent. A CCMD, no matter how well manned, cannot possibly observe every PresaCalc or MFarm indicator pertinent to the objectives of a localized battlespace owner. General Creighton Abrams advice “when eating an elephant take one bite at a time”[liii] is apt here; the joint force should attack the large data set by partaking locally.
In 1999, General Charles Krulak wrote of “power down” and “actions taken at the lowest levels” being operational characteristics required when the lines “between the levels of war” blur.[liv] The components of GEN Krulak’s ‘Three Block War’ provide a viable parallel to the complexities of the Internet as an OE. He proposes utilizing “Strategic Corporals” to mitigate the risks of technology diffusion, transnational friction, and globalization[lv]. U.S. military forces are unlikely to assume risk by placing a host of specialists alone and unafraid in cyberspace, though the idea has been floated.[lvi] However, if war is a political instrument[lvii] and “all politics are local”[lviii] then enabling operational and even tactical commanders for local mobile participation provides the decisive effect of an online strategic corporal.
Recent conflicts have proven the value of bottom up intelligence[lix] and living among the populace[lx]. Applying these maxims to mobile necessitates units regularly interact with relevant indigenous networks. Local app networks host the same geolocation data as Twitter, making physical strikes a feasible option. They also offer more subtle methods to approach conflict resolution through venues like crime prevention, combating disinformation, or mitigating economic instability.
The US intelligence community often focuses on crime and corruption as a disruptive force in security operations[lxi]. SPOTTM in South Africa as well as iPolice in Nigeria allow communities to anonymously report criminal activity, driving down crime and increasing government accountability.[lxii] Community reporting has been used in Iraq[lxiii]; doing so with an app adds location and network context to the report.
Fiscal growth and technology remain codependent in the developing world[lxiv]; U.S. efforts will be inherently economic as well. John Keegan asserts “markets are the principle centers for the exchange of information as well as goods”[lxv]. Digital stimulus can have very real economic effects and provide critical information. A unit dispersing grants through an app network not only energizes indigenous banking and commerce but can electronically track its expenditures’ course through the economy. In places with ethnic divisions, where “business is always personal”[lxvi], observing capital flows provides understanding of the local cliques that make up the human terrain.
Operating in the cognitive landscape for physical gain is not new. Achieving centrality within familial and market networks of fifteenth century Italy granted the Medici family unprecedented power through non-lethal means in an otherwise lethal environment[lxvii]. By modeling and acting on the network structures around him, a commander can maneuver on human networks just as effectively. Lethal actions provide visible and gratifying effects while subtle, cognitively focused, actions often have the decisive effect[lxviii]. Armed with socio-economic understanding a unit can “make war bad for business”[lxix] by using physical and digital actions to provide disincentives for violence.
Emerging operations on social media are complex and fraught with unforeseen consequences. Units uncomfortable with the network paradox of novel strengths emerging parallel to new vulnerabilities[lxx], might be tempted to just ‘turn off’ local connections. The 2011 Arab Spring taught us that was a bad idea for security forces, often fueling dissent rather than quelling it[lxxi]. Even defensive jamming, in the wrong spot, has the same effect as switching off the feed. However, Iran did slow Internet speeds down in 2009 and 2011[lxxii], without results analogous to its Arab neighbors. Iran, though hardly a role model, proves that decisive effects can be gained without shutting down the whole enterprise.
If commanders chose not to participate, adversaries will quickly move to fill gaps left by US absence. The barriers to market entry for mobile are low enough to create an additional venue for non-nation state actors to gain parity. A digitally enabled enemy can see much of the same data that U.S. forces could and exert coercive influence over the locally relevant human terrain. ISIS affiliates’ seizure of a U.S. Twitter feed and intelligence gathering on U.S. service members[lxxiii] suggests that future opponents are more than capable of digital maneuver. Those opponents understand the value of information; they will physically fight to control the IE[lxxiv] and will brutally attack those who challenge them in the cognitive dimension[lxxv]. U.S. formations will have to evolve and innovate in order to develop an advantage.
The business world has ready parables for those who don’t adapt to technologic disruption. The “Kodak Moment” was once a term of endearment for nostalgic family photos. Now it’s a reference to extinction[lxxvi]. Kodak developed the first megapixel capable digital camera, but did not change their business model to account for the new niche. The corporation’s own creative disruption caused their downfall[lxxvii]. Army combat units have not yet fully exploited the mobile Internet, the latest descendant of the Defense Department’s ARPANET.
Ultimately, an environment with more social liberation requires extensive interaction to effect[lxxviii]. The joint force will have to act quickly in order to conduct engagement on mobile app networks. Such engagements facilitate an economy of force capable of mitigating force ratio to population density disparity with marginal cost. U.S. forces’ capacity to generate resources enables the domination of fringe disruptors, if they can promptly and precisely capitalize on a network’s swift ability to reallocate power[lxxix].
U.S. efforts in the digital IE tend to focus on western social media platforms, primarily as a venue for messaging. This tendency represents a capability gap by ignoring a host of application software, and the accompanying networks, allowing for activities other than posting, liking, and sharing. Participating on local economic media offers new, open-source methods for gathering and analyzing information as well as public venues for collaboration and nonlethal effects.
Operational level commanders must be sanctioned to fight a live streamed information war "at the speed of Twitter.”[lxxx] A unit with the appropriate collection and analytical capability can assemble local information on the structure of human networks, emerging behaviors, as well as the geographic context of moving nodes. Armed with an understanding of where ‘red’ and ‘green’ networks intersect, a unit can maneuver in the ecosystem to fight for narrative penetration, collaborate with community influencers, as well as engage the economy against malign actors. Deploying units should have a forward-looking mobile strategy[lxxxi] that accounts for the phone as the primary means for individual Internet access[lxxxii] and be equipped for data analytics to anticipate rapid change in real time[lxxxiii].
The mobile connected segment of developing areas, like Africa[lxxxiv], will continue to grow. U.S. forces should exploit increasing connectivity by collecting on, operating in, and collaborating through homegrown economic media networks in order to drive meaningful conflict resolution and mitigate the parity of a primarily mobile IE. Commanders must participate within locally relevant app networks with the intention of capitalizing on the vast amount of resident data thus preventing U.S. adversaries from dominating the space. The force will adapt in the face of urbanized, connected populations instead of accepting a Kodak moment.
Acknowledgements: COL(Ret) Calvin DeWitt, Dr. Earl Burress, and MAJ Kim Boothe provided editorial assistance for this work.
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[xxv] Ibid. 365
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[xxxiv] Kilcullen, David. Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age Of The Urban Guerrilla. New York, NEW YORK : Oxford University Press. 2013. 192
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[xxxvi] Morris, David, Z. How AT&T is using drivers’ cellular data to help fix California traffic. Fortune. 16 October, 2015. Online at < http://fortune.com/2015/10/16/att-using-big-data-to-fix-traffic/>. Accessed on 20 October, 2015
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[xli] Groups of nodes are defines as ‘cliques’; Prell, Christina. Social Network Analysis; History, Theory, & Methodology. Sage Publications Thousand Oaks California, 2012. 31
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[lx] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, December 15, 2006), 5-24.
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[lxviii] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, December 15, 2006), 5-19
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[lxxviii] Raine, Lee and Wellman, Barry. Networked: The New Social Operating System. The MIT Press. Cambridge Massachusets. 2012
[lxxix] Rothkopf, David. The Paradox of Power in the Network Age. Foreign Policy. 09 October, 2015. Online at < http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/09/the-network-paradox-islamic-state-nsa-warfare/>. Accessed on 22 October, 2015
[lxxx] Vergun, David. CSA: Emerging global threats call for innovative approaches. U.S. Army. May 30, 2013. Online at <http://www.army.mil/article/104492/CSA__Emerging_global_threats_call_for_innovative_ approaches/>. Accessed on 03 October, 2015.
[lxxxi] Oxford Economics. The New Digital Economy: How it will transform business. Citibank. Online at < http://www.citibank.com/transactionservices/home/docs/the_new_digital_economy.pdf>. Accessed 3 October, 2015. 3
[lxxxii] Ibid. 30.
[lxxxiii] Ibid. 31.
[lxxxiv] Smith, David. Internet use on mobile phones in Africa predicted to increase 20-fold. The Guardian. June 05, 2014. Online at < http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/05/internet-use-mobile-phones-africa-predicted-increase-20-fold>. Accessed on 3 October, 2015.