The international war for dig­i­tal dom­i­nance heats up


Cy­ber­war is “in­creas­ingly threat­en­ing the over­all sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity not only of the In­ter­net but also of our very so­ci­eties,” Alexander Klim­burg writes.

Alexander Klim­burg’s “The Dark­en­ing Web: The War for Cy­berspace” ar­tic­u­lates a pow­er­ful cen­tral the­sis: The In­ter­net has ar­rived at a his­tor­i­cal in­flec­tion point, the au­thor as­serts, and to­day has be­come an arena for a mas­sive international se­cu­rity com­pe­ti­tion fought in an in­creas­ingly Hobbe­sian ecosys­tem of dig­i­tal ag­gres­sion and overt in­for­ma­tion war­fare.

Na­tion-states of the 21st cen­tury, Klim­burg ex­plains, have be­come in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound to “a dig­i­tal Great Game — a chess­board on which their re­spec­tive in­ter­ests can be ad­vanced, and key points cap­tured, all to­ward the no­tion of oc­cu­py­ing the com­mand­ing heights of what will be the dom­i­nant do­main of the fu­ture: cy­berspace.” Far from the Web’s early ethos as a be­nign realm for bor­der­less in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, “states are mak­ing cy­berspace a do­main of con­flict, and there­fore in­creas­ingly threat­en­ing the over­all sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity not only of the In­ter­net but also of our very so­ci­eties.”

It’s un­for­tu­nate that Klim­burg’s book is dif­fuse, un­fo­cused and feath­ered with ego­cen­tric first-per­son flour­ishes. Had the au­thor pre­sented his thoughts with more dis­ci­pline and con­ci­sion, his ar­gu­ments might have had more im­pact. For the tale he tells is a chill­ing one.

A re­cent wave of cy­ber­at­tacks that has spread around the world vividly dra­ma­tizes Klim­burg’s ar­gu­ment that states have pried open a tech­no­log­i­cal Pan­dora’s box that is rapidly re­order­ing the global threat en­vi­ron­ment. In May, 200,000 com­put­ers in more than 150 coun­tries were in­fected with the Wan­naCry mal­ware virus, shut­ting down hos­pi­tals, rail traf­fic and pro­duc­tion lines in an of­fen­sive that the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity at­tributes to North Korea. In June another hack against Ukraine, which that coun­try ac­cuses Rus­sia of in­sti­gat­ing, spread to 2,000 tar­gets in 65 coun­tries. Re­mark­ably, in both cases the at­tacks used cy­ber­weapons stolen from the U.S. National Se­cu­rity Agency by a group called the Shadow Bro­kers, which first of­fered the ma­li­cious code for sale about one year ago.

Both the NSA de­ba­cle and many of the sem­i­nal dis­clo­sures re­lated to the Kremlin’s in­ter­ven­tion in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — in­clud­ing Rus­sian probes and pos­si­ble pen­e­tra­tion at­tempts into 21 state elec­tion sys­tems — oc­curred af­ter Klim­burg com­pleted his man­u­script. Yet his treat­ment of Rus­sia’s vi­sion of the In­ter­net and its hy­per-ag­gres­sive quest for supremacy in cy­berspace still con­sti­tutes the most il­lu­mi­nat­ing and ab­sorb­ing pas­sages in “The Dark­en­ing Web.”

Ap­plied do­mes­ti­cally as an in­stru­ment of po­lit­i­cal con­trol and in­ter­na­tion­ally to ad­vance a strat­egy of desta­bi­liza­tion, Moscow’s doc­trine of cy­ber-dom­i­nance is omi­nous and in­creas­ingly ef­fec­tive. Klim­burg cites a study con­clud­ing that “Rus­sian In­ter­net users have be­come so in­ured to the Kremlin nar­ra­tive of the In­ter­net as a tool of West­ern pow­ers that two out of five Rus­sians dis­trust for­eign me­dia and nearly half of Rus­sians be­lieve for­eign news web sites need to be cen­sored.” RT, the tele­vi­sion sta­tion for­merly known as Rus­sia To­day, has a bud­get that ri­vals the world’s largest me­dia group, the BBC World Ser­vice. In the words of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, RT is de­ter­mined to break the “An­glo-Saxon mo­nop­oly on global in­for­ma­tion streams.”

Sup­ple­ment­ing its pro­pa­ganda ma­chine, the Kremlin em­ploys hun­dreds of In­ter­net trolls to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion and post an­tag­o­nis­tic com­men­tary in West­ern me­dia, mes­sages like “Putin makes Obama look weak!”

In Ukraine, a “Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda war­fare of­fen­sive” was cen­tral to the 2014 oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea and in­cluded fab­ri­cated claims that ba­bies had been cru­ci­fied by Ukrainian sol­diers. “Rus­sia’s phi­los­o­phy of in­for­ma­tion con­flict is much older than the United States’,” Klim­burg ob­serves. “In many ways, the rise of cy­berspace has breathed new life into for­mer Soviet mil­i­tary strat­egy.” The au­thor quotes a for­mer KGB colonel on the Kremlin’s ef­fort to both sow dis­cord among the United States and its al­lies and weaken Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions: “The most com­mon sub­cat­e­gory of ac­tive mea­sures is dez­in­for­mat­siya . . . or dis­in­for­ma­tion: fever­ish, if be­liev­able lies cooked up by Moscow Cen­tre and planted in friendly me­dia out­lets to make demo­cratic na­tions look sin­is­ter.”

“The Dark­en­ing Web” would be a bet­ter book if its six dis­jointed sec­tions and 19 chap­ters, in­clud­ing a con­clu­sion and epi­logue, were sub­stan­tially re­struc­tured and com­pressed. Much of the his­tory of the In­ter­net from the 1990s is more aca­demic than es­sen­tial, forc­ing the reader to join a some­times te­dious slog re­trac­ing “the in­di­vid­ual foot­steps in the sands of the his­tory of the cy­ber-space do­main.” Acronyms abound, some­times in­com­pre­hen­si­bly: “This def­i­ni­tion of IO clearly and trou­blingly puts equal em­pha­sis on the CNO task and the psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare com­po­nents, PSYOPS and MILDEC.” Per­sonal con­clu­sions by the au­thor can be pedan­tic: “I have be­come in­creas­ingly doubt­ful that the Smith-Mundt Act — which has been amended a num­ber of times since the 1950s — was re­ally a bul­wark against pro­pa­ganda that could also in­ad­ver­tently be con­sumed by US per­sons.”

There are also pe­cu­liar dis­con­ti­nu­ities be­tween Klim­burg’s anal­y­sis and pre­scrip­tive rec­om­men­da­tions. The au­thor cor­rectly notes that within the United Na­tions there is a fierce geopo­lit­i­cal con­flict over the fu­ture of the In­ter­net, with Rus­sia, China and many Arab states co­a­lesced in one bloc and the United States and its al­lies in another. Klim­burg is right that the “ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween the Free In­ter­net na­tions and the Cy­ber-sovereignty ad­vo­cates is not too far away from the ide­o­log­i­cal con­fronta­tion that de­fined the Cold War.” Al­though these two blocs are ir­rec­on­cil­ably di­vided, the au­thor pro­poses that the U.N. First Com­mit­tee should be the driv­ing force be­hind a new ini­tia­tive to solve the hor­ren­dously com­plex international cri­sis in cy­ber­se­cu­rity. It is a wholly un­re­al­is­tic no­tion. With the ex­cep­tion the 1990-1991 Per­sian Gulf War, ma­jor pow­ers in the U.N. sys­tem have al­most never achieved con­sen­sus or mounted ef­fec­tive en­gage­ment in re­sponse to the hard­est international se­cu­rity chal­lenges, of which cy­ber­se­cu­rity is cer­tainly one.

Fi­nally, de­spite its breadth and grand am­bi­tions, “The Dark­en­ing Web” tra­verses lit­tle new in­tel­lec­tual ter­ri­tory. Klim­burg de­votes con­sid­er­able ef­fort to ex­plain­ing the gov­er­nance struc­ture for the In­ter­net, a theme al­ready com­pre­hen­sively ad­dressed in the work of the out­stand­ing scholar Laura DeNardis. While the au­thor’s con­clu­sion that global pow­ers have weaponized the In­ter­net is self-ev­i­dently true, that book has al­ready been writ­ten by Wall Street Jour­nal re­porter Shane Harris, in his me­thod­i­cally re­searched 2014 work, “@War: The Rise of the In­ter­net-Mil­i­tary Com­plex.” And while the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­can of­fen­sive cy­ber-ca­pa­bil­i­ties is a sub­ject of ob­vi­ous im­port and in­ter­est, that nar­ra­tive has al­ready been writ­ten, too — by Slate colum­nist Fred Ka­plan in his fas­ci­nat­ing “Dark Ter­ri­tory: The Se­cret His­tory of Cy­ber War,” pub­lished while Klim­burg was com­pos­ing his own study.

As “The Dark­en­ing Web” demon­strates, ex­plain­ing cy­berspace and its acute geopo­lit­i­cal and geostrate­gic dis­rup­tion is pro­foundly chal­leng­ing; it is a his­tory hurtling ahead at In­ter­net speed.

Gor­don M. Gold­stein is an ad­junct se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.


THE DARK­EN­ING WEB The War for Cy­berspace By Alexander Klim­burg Pen­guin Press. 420 pp. $30

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