President Trump and Vladimir Putin have almost never used computers. CNN dubbed our commander-in-chief “the computer and e-mail skeptic-in-chief.” His Russian counterpart has dismissed the entire Internet as a “CIA project.” Trump is 70, Putin 64. You could call this generational. Alexandra Petri, the youngest person to ever become a columnist at The Washington Post, tiredly writes that such computer illiteracy “is the sort of thing we have come to expect from our Boomer Adults in Positions of Power.”
How to connect the dots between this disconnect in our age of connectivity? I started by consulting two intrepid Russian journalists: Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who wrote “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries” (PublicAffairs, 2015).
Though the book came out before the disclosures on Russia’s hacking of Democratic computers in the election, it supplies nervy, enlightening context. Here’s my main takeaway: The Russians use whatever Trojan horses they can. They justified increased surveillance before the 2014 Sochi Olympics after sharing intelligence for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Then, in Ukraine in 2014, they installed false “cell towers” (about the size of a suitcase) to send out threatening texts to protesters amassed in Kiev.
Meanwhile, they pay trolls $900 a month (who work out of a glass building in St. Petersburg) to plant pro-Putin comments online. And they launch denial-of-service attacks against opposition websites. They are big on “SORM” boxes, the Russian acronym for System of Operative Search Measures. All Internet service providers must add these devices on their lines, which connect to the FSB, the successor to the KGB. This results in “eavesdropping on the Internet.”
Twas ever thus. Marconi’s first telegraphs were hacked too, as I learned in “Cyber Spies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage” (Pegasus, 2016). Gordon Corera, a security correspondent for BBC News, surfs the chronology by explaining that security features (firewalls, encrypting, etc.) have been retrofitted since the 1980s, but nothing works comprehensively — because the original network didn’t anticipate the depth of subterfuge to come.
There’s a lot here on Edward Snowden, no surprise. Corera says that Snowden conceded our National Security Agency was no Stasi — but the potential was there: “The abuse doesn’t occur when people look at the data,” said Snowden. “It occurs when people gather the data in the first place.” Now he lives behind the irony curtain; finding protection where citizens are unprotected. As Corera says: “China’s hacking is often sloppier and easier to spot (hence all the attention), while Russia’s hackers are more expert and operate below the radar.”
John le Carré blurbs that my next book “grips, informs, and alarms.” The title is cadged from Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense, who learned it from his stationmaster grandfather: “dark territory” is a stretch of remote railroad track uncontrolled by signals. “Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War” (Simon & Schuster, 2016) is ominous and excellent, and it’s by Fred Kaplan, formerly of The Boston Globe, and now the national-security correspondent for Slate.
The book opens at Camp David in 1983. Ronald Reagan is kicking back one Saturday to watch the new movie “War Games.” Matthew Broderick plays a teenager who almost, unintentionally, starts World War III when he hacks into the main computer of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The following Wednesday, Reagan meets with the joint chiefs of staff. He asks chairman General John Vessey whether the movie’s scenario could happen in real life. Not only could it, the general reports back, but “the problem is much worse than you think.”
Fifteen months later, Reagan issues NSDD-145: “a pathbreaking policy document,” Kaplan calls it, which spelled out countermeasures and presciently anticipated our present world. A world where a modern toaster can spy on you (via its modem) and where Russia baited Kabul kiosks with preprogrammed thumb drives in hopes a US serviceman might buy them. (One did). Putin, adds Kaplan, was fated to hate the Internet because of its asymmetry: 80 percent of the world’s online traffic goes through routers based in the United States.
“Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What To Do About It” (HarperCollins, 2010) was one of the first books to tackle the subject. The authors are Richard A. Clarke, Bill Clinton’s national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism, and Robert K. Knake, a cybersecurity specialist. And so we learn of Russia’s botnet invasion of Estonian networks in 2007, and other hacks by North Korea (of us) and Israel (of Syria).
When it came out, “Cyber War” was accused of “Chicken Little-ism,” but today it feels quaint; there’s a glossary of now familiar terms (malware, server), and never does it predict one country will try to hack the election of another. Though Trump and Putin have not connected to the Internet, it seems, the Internet has connected them, fatefully.
Katharine Whittemore is senior writer at Amherst College. She can be reached at Katharine.firstname.lastname@example.org.