Grow­ing risk of vir­tual nukes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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