Skip to Content
Meet the author

Cyber Insecurity

The history of cyberwarfare goes back further than you’d think.
June 21, 2016

Stuxnet. Edward Snowden. Sony Entertainment. Cybersecurity issues have been making headlines with alarming regularity over the last several years. But as Fred Kaplan, SM ’78, PhD ’83, learned while writing Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, even some experts on the topic are unaware that the U.S. government has been monitoring the computer-based vulnerabilities of other nations, as well as its own, for decades. “I remember somebody in the field said, ‘It’s a history? What, are you going back five years?’” Kaplan says. “And he was kind of surprised when I said no, this story actually begins with the dawn of the Internet. They don’t know that this history exists.”

Dark Territory: The Secret
History of Cyber War

By Fred Kaplan, SM ’78, PhD ’83
Simon & Schuster, 2016, $28

The book opens in 1983 at Camp David. President ­Ronald Reagan had watched the movie WarGames, about a whiz kid who inadvertently accesses a military supercomputer while trying to hack into a gaming company and nearly starts a global thermonuclear war. Reagan asked his national security advisors if something like that could really happen. General John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, looked into the matter and came back with this answer: “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.” A year later, the National Security Agency was charged with setting security standards for U.S. computer systems and networks.

Even earlier, in 1967, as Arpanet was about to be rolled out for military use, RAND computer scientist Willis Ware, SM ’42 (later an advisor to the writers of WarGames, Kaplan found), warned that putting information “on-line” would jeopardize secrecy. The engineers behind Arpanet didn’t want to add security to their development requirements, assuming it would take years for U.S. enemies to figure out how to infiltrate the system. It did take about 30 years, but that early decision set the stage for all future cyber attacks.

Dark Territory traces the evolution of the U.S. approach to cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, as well as the interruptions and progress that accompanied changes in presidential administrations, from the Cold War days to the present. To get the full story, Kaplan, the national security columnist for Slate, interviewed more than 100 insiders and experts, including computer scientists, high-ranking members of the military, and former government officials. Among his key sources were six of the eight living NSA directors.

Kaplan says he was surprised to learn how long it took the government to realize that the United States could be susceptible to cyberwarfare. A senior intelligence official brought up that point while they were discussing a declassified presidential directive about the country’s computer vulnerabilities. “He said, ‘Look, the thing you have to realize [is] … we were already doing this to other countries, and then somebody thought, Oh, what we can do to them they can also do to us,’” Kaplan says. “Everybody I saw subsequent to this guy I asked if that was true, and they all said yes. I think that’s something that even today is not fully appreciated.”


Recent Books From the MIT Community

Why Only Us: Language and Evolution
By Robert C. Berwick, SM ’80, PhD ’82, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics
MIT Press, 2015, $22.95

Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence
By Joseph Mazur, PhD ’72
Basic Books, 2016, $26.99

New Order and Progress: Development and Democracy in Brazil
Edited by Ben Ross Schneider, professor of political science
Oxford University Press, 2016, $31.95

Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System
By Philip Kotler, PhD ’56
AMACOM, 2015, $26

Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond
By Stefan Helmreich, section head and professor of anthropology
Princeton University Press, 2015, $26.95

Biopharma R&D Partnerships: From David & Goliath to Networked R&D
By Robert Thong, SM ’90
Phizz Rx Publishing, 2016, $35.99

MIT: The Campus Guide
By Douglass Shand-Tucci, visiting scholar, School of Architecture and Planning; preface by MIT President L. Rafael Reif; foreword by Mark Jarzombek, PhD ’86, professor of architecture
Princeton Architectural Press, 2016, $34.95

Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet
By Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman, PhD ’67
Princeton University Press, 2015, $27.95

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2016 and 2017 to be considered for this column.


Contact MIT News
Write MIT News, One Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI

The tool, called Nightshade, messes up training data in ways that could cause serious damage to image-generating AI models. 

Rogue superintelligence and merging with machines: Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist

An exclusive conversation with Ilya Sutskever on his fears for the future of AI and why they’ve made him change the focus of his life’s work.

The Biggest Questions: What is death?

New neuroscience is challenging our understanding of the dying process—bringing opportunities for the living.

Data analytics reveal real business value

Sophisticated analytics tools mine insights from data, optimizing operational processes across the enterprise.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.