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WW3 Watch: Counter cyber activity and DSMA

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Few media practitioners seem to have spotted that in November 2021, the Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee, which was previously known as the Defence Advisory Notice system until 2017, updated some of its standing notices, mostly with fresh references to cyber activities.

The DSMA system is based on a voluntary code and consists of MoD and senior press representative advisors. For more on how it works, click here.

But the guidance is very important as it sets expectations for how the media should operate during wartime (and all times, with respect to national security). As the explainer notes, periodic notices on specific affairs will be issued by email to editors or through the Press Association and the Society of Editors’ networks, caveated as Private and Confidential: Not for Publication, Broadcast or for use on Social Media.

Thanks to the Wayback Machine we can see that the biggest changes since Feb 2017 relate to cyber activity, technology, methods and techniques in support of the Defence and Security of the UK.

So in notice 1, pertaining to military operations, plans & capabilities, the following language I’ve bolded (apart from the subheads) has been added:

Purpose

This Notice aims to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of information which would improve an adversary’s knowledge and understanding of the UK’s military plans, current operations and capabilities including details of cyber activity, technology, methods and techniques in support of the Defence and Security of the UK.

Notice 2, on nuclear and non-nuclear weapon systems and equipment, remains largely the same.

Notice 3, on military counter-terrorist forces, special forces and intelligence agency operations, activities and commmunication methods and techniques, adds the following references (bolded):

This Notice aims to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of classified information about:

  • Special Forces, Cyber and other MOD units engaged in security, intelligence and counter-terrorist operations, including their methods, techniques and activities;
  • Security and Intelligence Agency operations, methods, techniques and activities

And

  • Communications methods, techniques and activities
  • Encryption capabilities, techniques and activities;
  • Data protection measures
  • Operational Cyber Activity
    used or undertaken by the UK Government and its NATO and other allies.

And the following footnotes:

  • The methods and techniques of organisations involved with the execution of national security operations including details of Special Forces and other MOD units engaged in security, intelligence and counter-terrorist operations or Security and Intelligence Agency operations that are in the planning or execution stages or after they have been completed.

  • The methods and techniques of the Security and Intelligence Agencies, including details of operations that are in the planning or execution stages or after they have been completed.

  • The methods and techniques of Operational Cyber Units.  Footnote 4.

  • Classified details of encryption systems, capabilities or techniques currently or previously used by the UK government or its NATO or other allies.

  • Classified details of the UK’s current and past intelligence-gathering capabilities and intentions including targets, techniques, locations, partners and technologies.

  • Classified details of the UK’s current and past defence and security capabilities and intentions including techniques, partners and technologies.

Footnote 4:In the context of these notices.  This includes the methods and techniques used to counter organised crime activity only where they are the same as those used in the Defence and Security context.

Notice 4 on physical property and assets remains largely the same.

Notice 5 on personnel and their families who work in sensitive positions doesn’t have a Wayback Entry to refer back to.

According to the following FOIA dated December 2021, no supplementary notices were issued in 2021.  It’s also worth noting that the number of supplementary notices on historic terms is relatively low. But it’s also the case that the standing guidance is now far broader.

The latest published minutes are from May 2021 and reference the cyber updates specifically:

Agenda Item 4 – Incorporating Cyber into the Standing Notices

11. Dep Sec 1 introduced this item. He highlighted that this important question had been engaging the committee for at least 4 years but that progress had been galvanised following a cyber threat briefing to media side colleagues by the MoD Director of National Security earlier this year. Following this, a small working group had been created which engaged with officials to make detailed recommendations. Their focus had been on updating the existing notices to take account of this significant new threat to National Security whilst ensuring that they stayed within the strict remit of defending National Security and protecting life. They did not stray into the field of curtailing reporting on routine policing or ‘observable events’.

12. The draft notices including the amendments to incorporate Cyber had been circulated to members ahead of the meeting. These amendments were, above all, discrete, minimal, and coherent with the existing notices. The proposed amendments to the standing notices were unanimously accepted and adopted. The Secretary would ensure these amendments were incorporated into the text and published as soon as possible.

The reason I’m referencing this is because in times of war and national security risk the media will be guided strongly by these sorts of recommendations. Most people in a media organisation, however, will be unaware of the guidance. It works on a top down basis.

Since the system is voluntary, and the gags — if any — are agreed on mutually by way of appealing to the conscience of editors, it also makes for a strangely risk-averse mechanism. Editors will not want the death of innocent people on their conscience. The latest cyber amendments are obviously designed to protect UK counter activities in cyberspace. What falls under the remit of “white hat” cyber activities, however, — given that hacking is so often a social engineering strategy — is the question.

Is the media now obliged to ignore the inconsistencies that manifest if and when white propaganda hits Twitter and social media? I have no personal insight. But my hunch is yes.

Whether that’s justified is another matter entirely. But as I noted here, blowback that then goes on to accidentally misinform your own side carries significant risks of its own.

For markets, if you consider the great fortunes that were made from calling war time activity right, are even more complicated. The blind spots out there will be bigger than ever.

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