The history of cyberwarfare goes back further than you’d think.
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.”
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.”
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History of Cyber War
By Fred Kaplan, SM ’78, PhD ’83
Simon & Schuster, 2016, $28