Book Review: How to convert zeroes and ones into digital warheads

Book Review: How to convert zeroes and ones into digital warheads

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 26 March, 2016
Fred Kaplan.
This book is a fitting account of the evolving dynamics of the cyber world and how governments around the world are bracing for real warfare in the virtual realm, writes ANIRUDH VOHRA.

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War

Author: Fred Kaplan

Pages: 339

Price: 599


Fred Kaplan, an American journalist who over the years has to his credit several articles and books on various topics like politics, defense strategies and tech guides like what high end television to buy.

And this experience and diverse writing skills comes together in Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War where he manages to paint the perfect picture about the inner corridors and working of the American intelligence agency NSA (National Security Agency), the hush hush meetings in the White House and other intelligence agencies of the US.

As part of his research, Kaplan spoke to several people, officers, powerbrokers and scientists. And these interviews are used throughout the book as anecdotes or brief history lessons. But there is a drawback as for some of these anecdotes, the author doesn’t even return to them with short explanations or revelations, leaving the reader bemused pertaining to several unanswered questions.

The book opens with a scene where Ronald Reagan, the then US president, after watching the movie Wargames asks his security advisors if a cyber attack like the one shown in the movie is actually possible. It turns out that the writers of the movie were advised by Willis Ware — a high ranking security advisor who had warned the then government about the similar threats around fifteen years ago.     

The current ongoing Presidential campaigns in the US have brought out quite a lot of information about the US data gathering agencies’ practice of going over people’s conversations and mails.  As per Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, this practice has been in existence for decades. And the US government has always had an inclination towards this kind of data accumulation.

The author convincingly succeeds in showing that whatever the US can do the others; the other can replicate the same — If not then and there, but certainly in a few years times, they can. As per the book, several years after Ware had warned the US government agencies that a completely safe computer network is a myth, the United States developed a virus called the Stuxnet which was used to sabotage the Iranian nuclear research. The virus was capable of breaking the cyber defenses of the most powerful countries of that era.

In return, this resulted in creation of a similar virus by Iran called the Shamoon. This virus was used by the Iranians to wipe clean more than 30,000 computer hard drives of a Middle Eastern oil company called Aramco.

“If America, or the US Cyber Command, wanted to wage cyber war,” Kaplan writes, “it would do so from inside of a glass house.” In accordance to Kaplan’s Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, the United States is far more dependent on the internet than its adversaries. The book also highlights that over the years colossal resources have been spent on several cyber offences and attack tactics but hardly anything has been done to enhance the cyber defenses. Thus, even today the US still struggles to ward off an attack on its networks.   

“If America, or the US Cyber Command, wanted to wage cyber war,” Kaplan writes in his secret history of cyber warfare, “it would do so from inside of a glass house.”

Though Kaplan has called his book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, the book hardly reveals any secrets. It seems like a book which is based on briefings, commission reports and studies by several bodies in the US. Take for instance, the chapter that talks about Edward Snowden — it merely carries the view points of a committee that was made by the US President Barrack Obama for the case.

As per Kaplan’s book, “a handful of technical savants, from just down the street or the other side of the globe, could devastate the nation.” But it doesn’t answer the question as to why does the world or at least the US fear a “Cyber Pearl Harbor?”

The book also covers several activities spread out over a wide range of areas such as digital espionage, intellectual property theft and cyber crimes costing millions of dollars. Now these topics again get a drifting or quick focus in the textual world of this book which weirdly re-narrates the cyber history viewed through the corridors of Washington DC. And when private subjects do appear, they are more like — so and so company failed to abide to the government’s requests.

In a similar manner, the book refers to foreign governments as little black boxes. According to a review of this book by the New York Times, the senior government officials in Washington are having a hard time believing and accepting a simple fact — the United States which created the internet to enhance its military prowess seems to have lost the control over it.

The book, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War carries a lot of information about the cyber horrors and advancements that took place over the years. It is highly informative as it manages to carry almost all the important aspects. But again the book’s viewpoint is very specific, it sticks to the point of view of the NSA, the White house and other government agencies.

Overall, the book makes for a very good and interesting read, but if you are someone who likes to get to the bottom of a problem or a fact, the book will disappoint you.


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