A Dark Forest Theory of Intelligence builds on the Dark Forest Theory of the Internet (DFTI) which developed further from the Three-Body Problem’s second book in the series, The Dark Forest. The premise is extremely simple, and serves as an Occam’s razor of martial and survival gaze in avoiding detection, while still increasing one’s network of communications. The original Dark Forest Theory was coined from the fiction work of Liu Cixin and suggests a reason the universe is so silent: the night forest is teeming with predators and to avoid detection as means of survival, predators and prey remain quiet. For the universe, this means that alien civilisations are either predatory or not, and to avoid being invaded, they do not needlessly send radio signals blasting across the galaxy (or Tesla’s for that matter). It is better to avoid contact at all costs, as the probability of an alien species being predatory is pretty high, or the cost-benefits risk not of high value. For DFTI, this ‘going dark’ highlights the growing balkanization of the internet into private networks and private communications, namely against aggressive, predatory marketing and social media: the digital artist’s bane. It can go much deeper than Yancy Strickler’s exploration, further explored as a sense of conflict in Bogna Konior’s work.
This brings me to a new premise, where a Chinese sci-fi inspires a digital artist’s theory of dark web (specifically 2.0), opening up a Pandora’s box to all themes of intelligence, and notably the practice of counterintelligence. Long meditated on in Frank Herbert’s canonical Dune series, the idea of premonition haunts the main protagonists throughout each book. Paul evades the spice-induced prophecies of the Bene Gesserit and the Guild Navigators, to become the alleged Kwisatz Haderach. Leto II and Ghanima seem to outsmart every plot twist to have them assassinated, while under the all-seeing eye of their aunt Alia. Through Paul and Leto II’s visions, they understood that it would be possible to foresee all knowable actions in advance, all but one, and leading up to the point Leto II decides to initiate a millenia-long process of forcing humanity to develop a technology beyond prediction: the no-ship. This is a post-Butlerian age where humanity has outlawed the creation of thinking machines smarter than a human. To create a vessel, a ship, that is capable of evading the premonition by all humans and whatever technological singularity Herbert dreamed of, becomes quite a feat. To Leto II, this step requires a strict autocratic, galactic tyranny which uses their ability to predict all human events to rule them, and force them to migrate or advance technologically beyond the scope of the Leviathan. When migrants return from unknown parts of the galaxy with no-ships, these new vessels take a key strategic advantage.
The Dark Forest Theory of Intelligence, the dream of building the ultimate stealth device, the no-ship of Herbert is everything manifested in the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the reasons Putin (and cadre) decided or didn’t decide on invading, or denied altogether (Lavrov). Putin seems to resist the knowable intelligence of Western states, namely that of the alarmist United States’ warning for the invasion of Ukraine by early February. From the Soviet era of mutually-assured destruction, where spy agencies lived under and were aware of constant enemy surveillance, to the current post-GWOT, post-Fukuyama world where the battlespace context often shifts from cyber to kinetic operations interchangeably. The Leviathan being resisted in this case is the autocracy of neoliberalism, the Western order.
When today, much of geopolitics is boiled down to realism and game theory, machine learning prediction markets can accurately define the new strategy. Victory and motivation are measured by applying the appropriate power, stored/hidden versus transparent, in the least predictable place (the unmeasurable). In the current situation, military intelligence was lined up for months, beyond the typical alarming every winter brings for Europe with the threatening of the gas pipelines to shut off. Putin seemed to be stuck in a faulty script leading to invasion, while waiting for the Olympics to finish. On both sides, intelligence was shared with China… as an arbitrator for the situation. On one side, intelligence was shared with intent to show transparency and on the other, military planning was shared to prevent spoiling international sporting events even further. Neither served to de-escalate to situation.
You can overwhelm a nation’s ability to filter and monitor every set of data for intelligence collection, though the most interesting part of this invasion is that (nearly) everything was known with the widest possible audience than any previous conflict. Data and intelligence collection seem to have reached another apex, to the point where much of the Russian invading forces either disregarded the importance of encrypted comms (to create noise) or it wouldn’t have made a difference in this measured, “special operation”. They may have underestimated the resilience of Ukrainian broadband communications to stand up during invasion, expecting the ICTs to be incapacitated by the pre-emptive cyber attacks on Ukraine. Well… many ICT services came back online prior to the invasion.
If Bellingcat wasn’t a warning, crowdsourced, open-source intelligence gatherers seem to have changed the tide of war. Since the exposure of Russian operatives in the Navalny poisoning case, the ability of (Western-based) armchair, open-source intelligence to cause significant reputation damage to a nation-state is well-known. Since this investigation, OSINTers have chased similar cases across Europe, with the evidence leading to further indictment in the Czech munitions depot sabotage case in 2014. Not to stoke Robert David Steele’s OSINT revolution dreams, but it certainly shows that public, open source intelligence conducted by crowd-sourced, volunteer, permeable groups of researchers is much more enabled by a free and open press. OSINT becomes more difficult in a closed social environment where civil discourse is discouraged. Not that the West has any shining examples of free press. The American news media machine is pretty entrenched in its own feedback loops.
So Putin marches in, the U.S. ringing all the alarm bells for Ukraine to shelter. It almost seemed like Ukraine was caught off-guard? But it wasn’t, it’s spent the last 8 years preparing for this. Putin waits for the Olympics to end, and invades. The pre-text for the invasion seems all too scripted and the West is just watching. At this point, even the general Western public sees the invasion live the morning of 24 February and there is no doubt at this point. Intelligence was accurate and predicted a correct window for the timing of the invasion (within a month). Did Putin have the element of surprise?
Also enabling the global OSINT effort further was Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, headed by Mykhailo Fedorov. The dimension not counted on by Russia was the rapid shift of peace-time corporate marketing startups to full-time war information operations teams. Media is now magnified by the hordes of Twitter and TikTok, where anyone can now willingly participate in a DDoS attack for the cause. Western internet privateers have been unleashed and the Western government reaction has only enabled the growing class of corporate tech and infosec workers who have skeleton hobbies in the closet, putting that dusty Ethical Hacker certification to use. The Ministry of Digital Transformation has learned how to harness the churning Western OSINT machine, effectively outsourcing its intelligence collection refinement (no doubt, Russia is poisoning this process). Fedorov’s ministry continues to develop apps to support civilians during the war. Western social media influencers have diffracted Ukrainian psyop (not in a bad way).
Putin didn’t seem to think it needed the element of surprise. From a tactical perspective at first, it seemed coordinated. The whole invasion looked like a textbook Field Training Exercise (FTX), with forces moving across the border at approximately the same time for the entire eastern front, a classic pincer from Kiev and Kharkiv in the north to the Donbas in the south. Those coming from the east with big “Z” painted on them, and those from Belarus with “V”. A lot of the military equipment used in Ukraine was the same used by Russian army and it was thought they might need to quickly identify friendlies. The year is 2022 and we’re still using the old dodgeball team identifier with a blue armband to prevent friendly fire? Nothing here seemed to show a sense of OPSEC. I’m not sure what these teenage conscripts expected when they crossed the Dnieper. In short, no law of Dark Forest was followed, and Russia came in banging pots and pans for weeks, creating significant signal. Classic Greek drama always begins with a prophecy, with Oedipus knowing that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. All protagonists try to avoid the prophecy at all cost, but end up inevitably succumbing to it.