Information as a threat to national security
We publish the full presentation by the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Senator Monica Mutsvangwa at the Zimbabwe National Defence University in Harare
I want to thank the Vice Chancellor and Commandant of the National Defence University for inviting me to come and talk to you about ‘the proliferation of information as a threat to national security’.
I find the discussion very topical and pertinent given recent events that are still happening in our country.
It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that the regulation and management of information for the good of society is an important aspect of statecraft.
It is common knowledge that our forefathers would not announce the death of a chief or king before the framework for succession is put in place.
This is because information can be sensitive and its flow needs to be managed.
Traditionally, the affairs of the state were handled by the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. The increased importance of information in managing national affairs is the reason why the media sector which plays a key role in the collection and dissemination of information in society is now being referred to as the Fourth Estate.
Humanity’s greatest aspiration as individuals, communities and nation states is growth and development in which the well-being and prosperity of societies are the main goals.
Knowledge is one of the major drivers of growth and development because information is vital in decision making.
Life is not an open cheque given that we live in a world of scarce resources punctuated by chance, luck, fortune, opportunities and threats, the good and the bad, etcetera.
We need information to discover which places are safe for us and which ones are not, to be aware of threats and opportunities that surround us, to know what other societies are doing so we can decide what is best for ourselves.
Information comes in the form of symbols that have meaning about phenomena.
Information can be true of false, accurate or inaccurate, confirmed of unconfirmed, pertinent or impertinent and positive or negative.
Whilst information can be generated for storage, it gains greater utility when shared amongst people depending on their needs.
More importantly information is vital for growth of knowledge in society.
It is, however, unfortunate that information is a double edged sword because it can be positive or negative and we are seeing this in our societies.
This means that it can advance human good on one hand yet on the other, it is also capable of generating negativity which is destructive, retrogressive and detrimental to human progress.
Humanity’s ability to generate, manage, store and share information is not constant but has been growing with developments in technology.
Whilst the earliest data storage occurred on rock surfaces, Heather Brookes says before digitisation, data was stored on paper, microfiche or tape format.
Such data was shared physically and later by analogue means that were not so fast and efficient.
Digitisation and digitalisation of data has, however, brought an information revolution.
Digital comes from the Latin word digitus meaning toe or finger.
Digits thus came to refer to numerals because the ten (digita) used to count one to ten correspond to the decimal system.
Digitisation is defined by Brookes as anything that is relating to, resembling or possessing a digit or digits, and digital is data represented as a series of numerical values or information which can be 0 or 1, the binary system used in creating the computer chip.
What is remarkable about digital data is that its duplication and transmission can seemingly be done beyond any physical manifestation.
Digital data has ethereal quality, almost like pure thought.
This is because ‘ether’ used to be an imagined substance that was believed to fill space and support the transmission of electromagnetic waves.
‘Etheral’ thus means something that is light as air, impalpable, celestial or spiritual.
The huge troves of data that exist on the computer networks today have this quality.
What this means is that digital data can be shared in society in large quantities and in real time.
It can replicate so rapidly that its proliferation can be equated to the spread of virus.
The massive developments in information have led to convergence in technology and gadgets that we use in communication and information sharing.
There is little difference now in sharing information gathered for print and that for electronic broadcasting on radio and television.
Equally the same material can be shared on computers, ipads and smart phones.
More importantly, anyone with these gadgets can generate content that can be shared by anyone who can access the network.
It is particularly the world-wide-web (www) that has sealed the notion of global connectedness confirming the idea that indeed the world is, through globalisation, becoming one village.
The impact is the instantaneous sharing of information in real time and on a large sale within nations and at the international level.
This has seen the rise of citizen journalism in which every person with a smart phone or gadget can generate, retrieve or share information on closed groups and on the internet.
No wonder we have seen the proliferation of applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Skype, Twitter and many others offering specialised manipulation and management of information
The rise of citizen journalism has brought both negative and positive aspects in the information sector.
In line with the dictates of the topic that I was asked to share with you, however, let me focus on the idea of information as a threat to national security.
A nation is defined as a community of people mainly of common descent, history, language etc as the binding factor in a state.
Something is referred to as national when it is peculiar to or characteristic of a particular nation.
Security on the other hand is a loaded term associated with the notion of being free from danger, the elimination of threats to well beings or the institutions responsible for providing national well-being. National security, therefore, is the notion of a particular nation being free from danger.
My main argument in this presentation is that whilst the proliferation of information has in some respect led to great strides in human development, it has also brought serious challenges to the notion of national security.
The well-being of a nation can be enhanced by information yet at the same time information can be used to the detriment of national security.
Terrorism which is hinged on using violence to instill fear to advance a particular cause in society is equally taking advantage of the developments that have taken place in the information revolution.
Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have used the information revolution, in particular the notion of citizen journalism and social networks, to propagate narrow ideas on religious fundamentalism, Satanism, bellicose and other hedonistic and retrogressive practices that threaten the well-being of the modern state.
Citizen journalism characterised by people freely generating information and sharing it, removes the editorial responsibility and self-restraint that you find in traditional media because purveyors or social media information often operate extra-territorially out of reach from the societies they offend against in far away places.
You thus find all types of information circulating on social media including fake news some of it designed to create fissures in the nation state because those responsible are out of reach of national laws.
These virtual activities include mobilisation of people around fiendish ideas as well as recruitment of people world-wide to join these terrorist or satanic movements.
Today the information revolution has placed command and control of any operation to citizens based on smart gadgets.
Those planning to revolt against legitimately elected governments can easily command and control their rebellious and often militant operations using social media networks and applications.
Events in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011-2012 come to mind in which citizens of those countries were mobilized and controlled online to revolt against their governments.
Closer home in Africa, we have also seen especially during important events such as national elections or crisis, social media being used to attack sovereignty, national security, promoting commotion and violence by wipping emotions mostly through the dissemination of fake information.
Zimbabwe has not been spared, with social media information being used by detractors of the State during the general elections of 2018 to spread falsehoods that had potential to cause national instability.
Falsehoods and fabrications have also been repeatedly used to trigger or exaggerate economic crisis to trigger panic behaviour by our people.
In the recent challenges facing the country, opposition forces and other civic organisations whose main objective is to topple a legitimately elected government, social media has been used to coordinate the so called shut-down by deploying and coordinating thugs and criminals to attack members of the public and destroy infrastructure as a way of instilling fear in the citizenry and depict the country as failing.
This is terrorism through the use of information mainly on social media which is a threat to our national security.
It has been argued that the information has always been instrumental in the deepening of democracy including in the French and American Revolutions that occurred over 200 years ago for example.
Its however surprising that these front runners in creating democratic practices at home have not pursued the entrenchment of democracy in terms of how States relate to each other.
Instead, the strong States prey on weaker nations often for their own selfish interests. Most of these powerful countries were actually instrumental in the origination and perpetuation of slavery, colonialism and the post-colonial exploitation of weaker nations.
Today they use their ill-gotten wealth to build powerful systems in world affairs that include an enduring domination of the information sector.
Consequently most of the world’s strongest media outlets, networks and severs are housed and controlled by the most powerful States.
Often these countries have deployed information as a means to an end in their efforts to whip other nations into line.
That also poses a great threat to the national security of weaker countries.
Allow me to conclude my presentation by asking what developing countries should do about the proliferation of information as a threat to national security.
It is abundantly clear that we need to invest more in information systems so that our people can benefit from the positive aspects of information yet at the same time, we also need to deploy means to regulate and manage information for the good and safety of our society.
This calls for integrated Information Communication Technology platforms preferably with a single national gateway so that when social media is used in a way that create threats to the national security, there can be ways to denying the means to those threatening the State.
This calls for continuous virtual information flow monitoring so that strategies to remove the negative effects of the information revolution from harming our society are always being formulated and applied on a need basis.
The most powerful States including USA, Russia, China and other European nations are very good at that.
Measures to mitigate the negative effects of the proliferation of information should also include the crafting of laws that help in regulating social media usage by entrenching accountability and sanctions to offenders.
Zimbabwe is working on a Cyber Bill which has passed the Cabinet Committee on Legislation and is about to be tabled in Parliament for adoption.
The Bill seeks to guide the formulation of a Zimbabwe Cyber policy that will ensure that internet and related technologies are used for the good of society not to violate national security.
I thank you