When cyberthrillers become real life
The recently announced six-nation accord with Iran to greatly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability has thrust one of the world’s most critical flash points back into headlines. For authors of cyberthrillers, it’s also a callback to one of the earliest and most intriguing episodes of cybersabotage.
Stuxnet, a computer worm reportedly developed by the United States and Israel, was launched in 2009 to disable nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Facility. The cybersabotage did, in fact, delay Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium. Neither the United States nor Israel has ever officially confirmed its role in that attack.
So Stuxnet succeeded brilliantly — until it didn’t. By 2010 Stuxnet was a worm gone haywire, infecting untold computers worldwide, though it did little damage to systems not specifically targeted. Revelations about Stuxnet spurred attempts to establish international agreements to restrain the deployment of cyberweapons. Alas, they have proved mostly unsuccessful.
Since 2009, new cyberattacks have accelerated greatly, making headlines almost every week, but the initial reports often fail to grasp the extent of the attacks or their consequences. For example, the Obama administration announced last year that hackers had penetrated the Office of Personnel Management, affecting about 450,000 government contractors and federal employees. Big numbers, but nothing compared to the announcement earlier this summer that the breach had actually affected more than 21 million people.
Still, the startling penetrations of corporate, government, and private security don’t appear to faze the American people. Perhaps that’s because unlike traditional terrorist attacks that become manifest with bombs, bullets, or beheadings, cyberterror is an invisible invasion that takes its toll stealthily.
Enter the cyberthrillers now appearing on many readers’ most-wanted lists. We authors often demonstrate the daunting threat to our nation’s security by showing the possibility of massive and highly lethal cyberattacks on our defense systems, infrastructure, and civilian populations. This is in notable contrast to the cheery notion that cyberattacks can serve as a humane alternative to the more lethal arrows in a nation’s quiver. While comforting, that is likely an illusion, for it ignores the widespread devastation cyberweapons are capable of delivering — and the historical willingness of desperate antagonists to use almost any means to try to defeat an enemy.
Fortunately, to this point, cyber’s potentially apocalyptic violence remains the domain of fiction. That such mayhem has not yet occurred in the real world is scant assurance, though, given humankind’s history. Does any serious student of modern conflicts believe that war gamers worldwide are actually turning their cybersights away from civilians?
In writing our books, we show how these attacks could take place, providing page-turning thrills rich with wake-up calls. And in anticipating the strategies of killers with keyboards, we pit ourselves as authors — intent on plotting with verisimilitude — against the macabre machinations of cyberterrorists. To judge by readers’ reactions, we’re holding our own. But for how long? While we are motivated by book sales and whiffs of public notice, the terrorists we fear most are fueled by the highest octane of all: the fusion of ideology and theology.
Are authors of cyberthrillers war-gaming for the bad guys?
That’s a haunting but very real question, for when authors and terrorists are both advancing the possibility of new weaponry, or fresh applications of older armaments, the line between reality and fiction can vanish as easily as the electronic trail of a cybersaboteur.
Let’s not forget that in 1994 Tom Clancy published his darkly prophetic thriller “Debt of Honor,’’ in which a Japanese airline pilot flew a Boeing 747 into the US Capitol.
Seven years later marked a new date of infamy.
Thomas Waite is author of “Lethal Code’’ and “Trident Code.’’