Growing risk of virtual nukes
The DVD cover for Alex Gibney’s riveting documentary Zero Days features a picture of a computer screen with a mushroom cloud rising high into the air and the caption World War 3.0. The cover of the September-October 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs carries the title “World War Web: The Fight for the Internet’s Future”, accompanied by the image of a menu of Wi-Fi options in different languages. David Sanger’s new book simply has a massive stream of zeros and ones as a background to its title. Welcome to the real/virtual world of our time.
At the beginning of the Cold War, nuclear weapons were seen as changing the strategic landscape in ominous and complex ways. Sanger has written a gripping analysis of the rise and disturbing potential of cyber weapons, which must sit up there with Bernard Brodie’s classic work The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (1946) as a red alert regarding the disruptive potential of a radically new class of weapons. Or, since Sanger probably would see this as excessive praise, at least as a lucid call for a work of strategic thought at that level.
The overlap is that Brodie was seeking to draw attention to how radical a change nuclear weapons represented in strategic affairs and Sanger is attempting to do the same for cyber weapons. In 1946, there were no agreed rules of nuclear deterrence and there was a delusion in certain high circles in the US that it could monopolise nuclear weapons to impose a liberal world order in the wake of World War II. Ray Monk’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, A Life Inside the Centre (2012), probably is still the best exploration of the atmosphere at that time.
Sanger’s core message is that something like this attitude appears to have prevailed for years now in the US regarding cyber weapons, with the consequence that we have nothing approaching agreed international covenants on the use of such weapons or how to constrain their use in such a way as to avoid uncontrolled escalation.
As Gibney points out in his documentary, the use of the ingenious Stuxnet virus by the US and Israel to try to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program was reasonably close to Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs to compel Japan’s surrender in August 1945. The pressing question now is: What next?
Sanger is a veteran reporter for The New York Times on national and international security affairs and a lecturer on those subjects at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (2012). That book touched on ‘‘Olympic Games’’, the code name for the Stuxnet project, as well as several of the other areas that he returns to in The Perfect Weapon, such as the challenges presented by China and North Korea. Like any good teacher, he keeps learning and updating his brief.
But perhaps the best conceptual complement to Sanger’s new book is another book published in 2012: PW Singer’s Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Between them, these books offer the concerned citizen a first-rate primer on the technological developments that are transforming conflict and generating a whole range of new worries to keep us all on edge and worried about the human prospect.
Indeed, Singer, a brilliant graduate of the top Ivy League universities, born in 1974, is ahead of the curve on cyber affairs and the weaponisation of social media. So run with both: Sanger and Singer.
The greatest virtue of Sanger’s writing is that it is clear-headed and morally grounded, not in any way breathless or apocalyptic. He builds on Fred Kaplan’s splendid introduction to the sub- ject, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (2016), and his core concern is precisely the tight secrecy of the programs generating and using these new weapons.
He writes early in the book: Naturally secretive, intelligence officials and their military counterparts refuse to discuss the scope of America’s cyber capabilities for fear of diminishing whatever narrow advantage the country retains over its adversaries.
And its adversaries, from Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China to Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, are using cyber weapons and honing them for wider and more aggressive use. Sanger does his best to explain what is happening and to point out how urgent a more open debate is to bringing the cyber arms race under some kind of control before it gets out of hand.
His most striking observation about where this could all go is an analogy with the emergence of air power in World War I. As he points out, in 1913 there were 14 military aeroplanes