A dystopian future: Fallout from a code war
A dystopian future: Fallout from a code war

Two cen­turies ago, the Pruss­ian gen­er­al Carl von Clause­witz famous­ly wrote, “War is a con­tin­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics with oth­er means.”

The nice thing about apho­risms is that they are so easy to re-inter­pret for fresh pur­pos­es and present cir­cum­stances. In that way, apho­risms are unlike new tech­nol­o­gy, which often change the world around it far less than is cred­it­ed to it pure­ly by virtue of being nov­el and there­fore more visible.

For­mer Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­er­al John P. Car­lin and jour­nal­ist Gar­rett Graf­f’s 2019 book Dawn of the Code War focus­es on the new chal­lenges posed by cyber threats to nation­al secu­ri­ty. Sub­ti­tled “Amer­i­ca’s Bat­tle Against Rus­sia, Chi­na, and the Ris­ing Glob­al Cyber Threat”, it dives deep into some of the cas­es Car­lin dealt with dur­ing his rough­ly twen­ty years in fed­er­al law enforce­ment for the FBI and U.S. Depart­ment of Justice’s Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Divi­sion, par­tic­u­lar­ly those threats direct­ed by Iran, North Korea, Chi­na, and Russia.

Dawn of the Code War
Dawn of the Code War: Amer­i­ca’s Bat­tle Against Rus­sia, Chi­na, and the Ris­ing Glob­al Cyber Threat, by John P. Car­lin and Gar­rett M. Graff (Hard­cov­er, PublicAffairs)

There’s some val­ue and some inter­est in this, explain­ing how indi­vid­ual human errors are often the key to, for exam­ple, find­ing an indi­vid­ual Daesh/Islamic State group “cyber jihadist” recruiter based on con­nec­tions to oth­er, less care­ful cyber crim­i­nals or that Chi­nese hack­ers were the ones behind a par­tic­u­lar net­work intru­sion for intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty because they did­n’t always cov­er their tracks as well as they were capa­ble of.

The his­to­ry of cyber­crime and cyber­crim­i­nals traced from its hum­bler begin­nings when com­put­er net­works were large­ly the realm of niche aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits ver­sus now where every aspect of our lives is inter­twined with them does show again and again the human ele­ment of what it takes to hold mali­cious actors account­able for their actions, even when those actions are key­strokes half a world away.

But the book’s pri­ma­ry lim­i­ta­tion is that, to be crass, Car­lin is a cop; his insights are main­ly lim­it­ed to a cop’s insight of solv­ing par­tic­u­lar cases.

It’s enter­tain­ing to read through North Kore­a’s attack on Sony Pic­tures in 2014 over their griev­ance of the Seth Rogen film “The Inter­view” because the plot includ­ed the far­ci­cal assas­si­na­tion of North Kore­an leader Kim Jong-un.

It reminds you how seri­ous this attack actu­al­ly was, which was obscured at the time and has most­ly fad­ed from pop­u­lar mem­o­ry now.

But Car­lin was­n’t with the for­eign-focused CIA or NSA, so his view is from the view of a cop catch­ing incom­ing criminals.

When focus­ing on oth­er nations with bad designs on the Unit­ed States, a major miss­ing piece is what the Unit­ed States itself is already doing. I say this only because I read about the Iran­ian cyber attacks as an exam­ple of the asym­met­ri­cal war­fare they favor, but there was only one off­hand ref­er­ence I saw to Stuxnet, the joint U.S.-Israeli com­put­er worm designed in the mid-aughts to tar­get Iran’s nuclear pro­gram and cause phys­i­cal dam­age to cen­trifuges in infect­ed facilities.

Clear­ly, the Unit­ed States is aware of the many ways that cyber­at­tacks can be used to tar­get a nation’s infra­struc­ture because we’ve done and no doubt are doing it to oth­ers. Sim­i­lar­ly, as Car­lin acknowl­edges, the prob­lem with Russ­ian elec­tion inter­fer­ence was­n’t so much that there was a lack of secu­ri­ty with­in polit­i­cal par­ties or state elec­tion sys­tems, although that’s accurate.

The prob­lem was that when the attacks were dis­cov­ered, traced back to Russ­ian intel­li­gence agen­cies, and the infor­ma­tion was brought to Con­gress, then-House Speak­er Paul Ryan and Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell were per­fect­ly OK with the attacks because it meant they had a bet­ter chance for their par­ty to win the pres­i­den­cy and achieve their pol­i­cy goals of dis­man­tling the wel­fare state, hurt­ing unions, and entrench­ing vot­er suppression.

The Unit­ed States has sim­i­lar­ly made com­mon cause with local polit­i­cal par­ties to con­tin­ue pol­i­tics with oth­er means.

We’ve been aware that some­one might do the same to us, but what’s changed is hav­ing a polit­i­cal par­ty whol­ly embrace such a for­eign alliance.

You can even look at the role of pro­pa­gan­da and how lit­tle has changed in sev­en­ty years. Dur­ing the Cold War, the CIA fund­ed Radio Free Europe for years as anti-Com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­da whose radio waves could pierce the Iron Curtain.

Its effec­tive­ness com­pared to the Sovi­et equiv­a­lent Radio Moscow was that the Sovi­et Union had struc­tur­al issues exploitable by radio broad­casts by RFE’s broad­casts, such as includ­ing less strict cul­tur­al cen­sor­ship and infor­ma­tion (or mis­in­for­ma­tion) that seemed more trust­wor­thy than the local gov­ern­ments that so bald­ly lied about what was going on, such as Chernobyl.

How­ev­er, now Radio Moscow has become Sput­nik, and what makes Sput­nik effec­tive is that it can ampli­fy forty years of con­ser­v­a­tive ide­ol­o­gy while being ampli­fied in turn by them. If Radio Moscow had had the equiv­a­lent of Fox News and AM talk radio pick­ing up its pro­pa­gan­da and push­ing it, or if Nixon had asked the Sovi­ets to do Water­gate for him and the Repub­li­cans had con­trolled the Sen­ate and been fine with it, it’s hard to see what would be so different.

For that rea­son, the new­ness of what cyber­at­tacks rep­re­sent is less con­vinc­ing, includ­ing what our nation’s new respons­es should be.

Gov­ern­ments uti­liz­ing inde­pen­dent hack­ers to attack oth­er coun­tries does­n’t seem too dif­fer­ent from eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry pirates get­ting their let­ters of mar­que to be des­ig­nat­ed pri­va­teers. Intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights seem to have changed more in the past one hun­dred years than nations’  theft of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty.

Pro­pa­gan­da, use­ful idiots, agent provo­ca­teur — these were all around in the past and per­haps less iden­ti­fi­able. But in the great ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle of the Cold War, the Sovi­ets felt com­pelled to side with the plight of Black Amer­i­cans in an effort to under­mine cap­i­tal­ism. Maybe if they’d helped South­ern con­ser­v­a­tives resist the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, they’d have found more will­ing partners.

The Unit­ed States spent an unknown amount of resources to devel­op our cyber­weapon Stuxnet, designed to phys­i­cal­ly break part of the infra­struc­ture of Iran. But it turns out the most cost-effec­tive worm for under­min­ing Amer­i­can hege­mo­ny and infra­struc­ture is mak­ing sure Trump and pri­va­ti­za­tion-hap­py Repub­li­cans stay in pow­er, by what­ev­er means necessary.

Some­times pol­i­tics is a con­tin­u­a­tion of war with oth­er means.

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