Geospatial Information to Tackle Hybrid Threats

Geospatial information systems help in making informed decisions that are built on accurate information by way of drawing maps and visualizing data to clearly judge which option is the best for that particular situation.

Dr. Josef Schroefl
Deputy Director, COI Strategy and Defense at European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats

Hybrid threats can be simply defined as strategies in which attackers bank initially on a combination of propaganda in the media and social networks until relying on classic warfare. The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) characterizes hybrid threat as:

  • Coordinated and synchronized action that deliberately targets democratic states and institutions’ systemic vulnerabilities through a wide range of means
  • Activities that exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution, as well as the different interfaces (war-peace, internal-external security, local-state and national-international).Activities aimed at influencing different forms of decision-making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level, and designed to further and/or fulfill the agent’s strategic goals while undermining and/or hurting the target.

The attribution problem

Attribution is one of the biggest problems when it comes to cyber or hybrid activity. Often, states use criminals or third-party groups in sabotage and subversion activities, making tracing difficult. Overall, threat actor sophistication has been seen to have increased in the past year, making detection and attribution more difficult. When we look at the six Ws of any piece of information: who, what, when, where, why, what for, and also ask how, we quickly see that one of the most important parts of any information is the ‘where’.

The people planning hybrid threats mostly use intelligence in two principal ways. They either employ their own intelligence capabilities to support planned or ongoing hybrid threat activities, or make attempts to affect the target state’s intelligence operations. In both cases, the actors seek to undermine the target state’s capability to develop and maintain situational awareness. This is exactly where geospatial information is highly required.

The US defines geospatial intelligence as “the intelligence about the human activity on Earth, derived from the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information that describes, assesses, and visually depicts physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth”. Therefore, high-quality strategic information is necessary for well-founded decision-making in order to uncover hybrid activities. By recognizing the possibility of a hybrid attack by an opponent, the summary of the intelligence not only offers a potentially decisive defense capability, but also forces the attacker to react quickly. Furthermore, there is a high chance that the opposing side will refrain from the attack if it fears that the threat has already been discovered.

Hybrid threat scenario

The scenario description of hybrid influencing can be roughly divided into three phases.

Phase 1 — Preparation: This phase begins in times of deepest peace, can extend over years, and is characterized by blurring traditional dichotomies and creating ambiguities. Individuals and societies have an inherent preference for thinking in dichotomies (truth/lie, friend/enemy, etc.) and our decision-making is largely based on this way of thinking. However, ambiguities hinder decision-making at individual and collective levels by creating confusion and distrust. Through well-coordinated disinformation campaigns, the aggressor causes ambiguities that impair judgment and trust in political or social actors and institutions. Basic knowledge and verification of truthfulness of statements takes a back seat. Being “under the radar” as much as possible so as not to be recognized and to obscure the targets is one of the characteristics of hybrid activities in this phase.

Phase 2 — Destabilization: This phase is characterized by further undermining public confidence in democratic institutions, manipulating democratic decision-making, questioning basic values of the society. It goes up to attacks against strategic infrastructures, as well as impairing the decision-making ability of the political leadership. The basic tenets of Western societies and democratic decision-making, such as freedom, rule of law, equality, individualism, openness and tolerance are manipulated in order to endanger these values. While in phase 1 the aggressor tries everything to disguise himself and his goals, in phase 2, the fog of anonymity around the attacker and his goals is cleared.

Phase 3 — Violent clashes up to war: The presumptive opponent in this phase is looking at escalation of violence. While all tactics of the hybridization of phase 1-2 continue, the state crisis can develop in this phase from regionally limited civil clashes to an open armed conflict/war. The worst-case scenario occurs if the armed groups use weapons of mass destruction to pursue their targets and/or a comprehensive destruction of the critical infrastructure with a comprehensive blackout.

This graphic illustrates that at the beginning of hybrid influencing, the aggressor is unknown. But as the attacks continue, the target and nature of the attacker becomes clear

Perceiving, preventing threat

Hybrid threats, supported by geospatial information systems (GIS), initially target intangible assets and develop into attacks on the sovereignty of states — with far-reaching economic, political and social impacts. Many options for hybrid influencing on states/societies, such as long-term and large-scale industrial and financial manipulations, are currently barely perceived in the context of hybrid threats, but could drastically change the geostrategic balance of power. If a country is sufficiently resilient, or is using geo-intelligence, it can detect the possibility of a hybrid attack and can prevent the same. As the worst-case scenario means a comprehensive blackout along with armed conflicts, a coordinated use of all government instruments, including the armed forces, is required to avert such a possibility.

In the case of hybrid threats, internal and external security are closely linked, and the attacks often occur where they overlap. Cyber threats in a hybrid threat strategy are the power of the weak, and when effectively used and even supported by GIS, can give significant advantages to the weaker side, as well as create a future conflict potential where military instruments are also deployed. Therefore, geospatial information systems help in making informed decisions that are built on accurate information by way of drawing maps and visualizing data to clearly judge which option is the best for that particular situation.

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