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