Fred Caplan - Dark Territory: the Secret History of Cyber War

by Jonathan Nicholas on January 22nd, 2018
in Background

I have recently read this.  Here are my thoughts on it.

This is a most interesting book which covers 40 years of Cyber Security; it is not only about war, but about the impact of Information Security on a country, the USA. It starts with a military story. Ronald Reagan back in 1985 at Camp David, watches the film War Games where a young computer whizz kid connects into a miltary supercomputer and has complete control over the US nuclear arsenal. The next day Reagan asks Gen. Vassey his chief of staff “Could something like that really happen?”. The answer was, “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.”

Another story, incredibly, almost exactly 40 years from when I write this, concerns the US embassy in Moscow which was equipped on the 10th floor with a large amount of listening equipment to tap into Russian radio communications. In January 1978 the NSA director got a call from the secretary of state saying that building was on fire and the Russian fire chief was asking permission to get into the heavily secured 10th floor. His reply was, “Let it burn”.

An important theme in the early part of the book is the move from analogue to digital, as the microwave communication links were replaced with digital ones using fiber which was much more difficult to tap. In 1991, just before Operation Desert Storm when the US invaded Iraq the US destroyed a critial fiber link in Iraq so they had to resort to microwave which could be listened into. The problem for the intelligence services was the miltary could not see the advantages of listening into it. Apparantly Norman Schwarzkopf wanted to destroy the microwave link as well, but remember that he, as well as George Bush and Defense Secretary Cheney had never used a computer!

Legal questions also come up early on Robert Mueller when assitant atourney general, questioned whether surveillance of innocent Americans, even unintentionally, might break federal laws. He changed his tune when he became FBI director in 2001 but the question is still a very hot one at the beginning of 2018 when the Senate is voting on section 702 of FISA.

In 1997 the US was in Serbia as part of the Stabilization force SFOR and demonstrated another use of cyber in wartime, which really helped to finish the Milosevic regime. They hacked into the Serbian phone system and also the air defence system. They could listen to the calls between Milosevic and his cronies, and even phone him up just to annoy him. Many US aircraft carried out raids but the Serbians only managed to shoot down 2 aircraft in the entire war.

How vulnerable is the US? Many people have studied this and almost all came to the same conclusion. Very. Jamie Gorelick, deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration spoke about how vulnerable the insfrastructure was to what she called a “ terrorist cyber attack”. She said it was only matter of time and that “we do not want a cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor”. There was a CIA briefing in 1995 on the vulnerability of SCADA systems, another source found that a modern thief could steal more with a computer than a gun, but no-one seemed to have a solution.

Even after a man with a lorry destroyed a Federal building in Oklahoma in 1995 and 8 people with 4 airplanes destroyed buildings in New York and Washington in 2001 the Cyber Terrorist was not taken seriously.

The Americans continued to use Cyber for their interests though. In 2008 Keith Alexander the NSA director, with the approval of Bush, started “operation Olympic Games” an attack on the Iranian Nuclear facilities in Narantz. This used a very clever piece of malicious software which only affected the right SCADA systems. It achieved it’s aim and seriously handicapped the Iranian nuclear program. The trouble was, the malware got out and while it did no further damage it became know to the world as the “Stuxnet” virus. General Michael Hayden described it as “the first cyber attack” but went on to say that “destroying Iranian centrifuges is an unalloyed good”.

The book also deals with the many aspects of cyber outside warfare. A recurrent theme, which as I mention is very topical at the present time, is the use of cyber by the intelligence services to find information about criminals both outside and within the USA. Also there is the industrial espionage which the Chinese excelled in, stealing data from governments and also from companies. They stole enough information from Lockheed Martin and its subcontractors that they managed to build a knockoff F-35. The Americans got so fed up with this that they started to confront the Chinese. In a wonderfully ironic meeting in June 2013 between President Obama and the chinese leader Xi Jinping, Obama brought up cyber theft. Unfortunately the meeting was badly timed as the day before, the revelations of cyber theft by the US intelligence services had been leaked by Edward Snowdon and Xi just produced a copy of the Washington Post.

The book covers the Five Guys Report which resulted from the Snowdon leaks and the fact that although small changes were made, the intelligence agencies were basically let off the hook. The danger to US critical infrastructure is still there and the last chapter, quoting Gates from many years back is called “We are wandering in Dark Territory”.

I have two small criticisms of this book. Although each chapter has a theme, he does wander and tell stories from different times so the book can be a bit hard to follow. Also it is entirely USA based. Of course he has done a massive amount of work to research people’s opinions and government actions, but for me particularly as I am British, it would have been nice to learn something at least, about the five eyes partners, that is Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Having said that I still heartily recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the history of cyber.

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