One day in 2007, Russian hackers took down key online services in Estonia. This action, now generally recognized as the first known cyberattack by one nation upon another, perplexed the members of NATO, which Estonia had recently joined. Did the attack constitute a military strike? Lacking a clear answer, NATO did nothing.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted worries that NATO could ultimately be dragged into the fray by an ill-targeted cyberattack. Few people know what the antagonists in this conflict hold in their cyber-hands, but not a few of us wonder. What would a spreading cyberwar do to a world already enervated by COVID?
Several recent books argue that cyberwarfare is the future that has already arrived. In “The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power,” Jacob Helberg proposes that we are well along in such a conflict with Russia, and China too. The tech war currently unfolding could reshuffle the world order, and determine whether democracy or authoritarianism shapes our lives.
A self-described foot soldier in this war, Helberg was charged with fighting foreign interference at Google from 2016 to 2020. At first, he writes, almost nobody in his world believed that tech platforms had significantly influenced the 2016 election. The more he learned though, the clearer it became that Google had rolled out the welcome mat for Russian disinformation.
Helberg felt his faith in technology giving way to anxiety and sleeplessness. A few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, he erupted at a cocktail party, insisting to skeptical colleagues that Vladimir Putin was trying to weaken the United States.
“The Wires of War’' offers a highly readable account of how, in just 40 years, the Internet has become almost as intrinsic to human survival as breathing. Helberg draws engagingly from the headlines, placing key events in context and building his case that we might be sleepwalking toward domination.
While American technocrats now generally regard the Internet as a theater of geopolitical conflict, Helberg says, a substantial rift between Silicon Valley and Washington thwarts our response. Many tech leaders are still livid over Edward Snowden’s disclosures, in 2013, that the National Security Agency had been making an end run around their security systems.
Meanwhile, however, China in particular has been pouring massive resources into dominating the cyber-world. Helberg’s bottom-line plea is for the American tech sector and the government to begin working more closely together, before it is too late.
In “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence,” Amy B. Zegart reaches the same anxious conclusion. A career academic currently attached to Stanford University, she ranks Russia’s interference in the election alongside Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the two biggest surprise attacks in modern US history.
Zegart is not the first to observe that growing interconnectivity presents growing hazards to highly automated societies. The first cyberattack using a refrigerator, to transmit malicious e-mail, occurred in 2013 and looks almost quaint in retrospect. With ever-changing vulnerabilities, the cyber battlefield has grown unfathomably immense.
In fact, one expert told New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth that vulnerabilities are as numerous as stars in the sky. With “This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyber-Weapons Arms Race,” she has delivered a five-alarm page turner that weighs the possibility of cyber-cataclysm.
The story opens in Kyiv, where Perlroth has come to report on the 2017 NotPetya cyberattack, Russia’s second on Ukraine in less than two years. Government, rail, ATMs, gas stations, and more were shut down on a national holiday, at costs now estimated at more than $10 billion.
Ukrainians experienced NotPetya as a watershed moment. Perlroth, chilled by the damage, came away sensing that Ukraine was a practice run: the ultimate object was probably the United States. And ominously, her homeland had turned itself into a target-rich environment.
Perlroth’s signal discovery, unearthed over several years’ dogged reporting, was that the United States has unintentionally been helping to supply the world with cyber-arms. Since the 1990s, American intelligence agencies have quietly been paying hackers who uncover potentially damaging software bugs. Instead of neutralizing these flaws, however, they have hoarded them for possible offensive use.
Other nation-states have gotten into the game, bidding up the cost in an escalating cyber arms race. Hackers’ customers have included North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
For many years, US intelligence officials believed that they were comfortably outstripping their rivals. Then, in 2016, the NSA’s cyber arsenal began dribbling online. The leaks, by a mystery culprit, destroyed what had been a substantial offensive advantage. By 2019, stolen NSA delivery tools were daily being turned against the United States.
All three of these writers offer suggestions for improving our chances of cyber survival. But not one is sanguine that American smarts, in themselves, will be enough.
M.J. Andersen’s column appears monthly.