Cyber War

Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake, Ecco, $25.99, £16.99

Poison gas clouds over Wilmington and Houston. Serial crashes on the New York subway and the Washington Metro. Aircraft plunging to the ground. The president of the United States clueless as to what to do next.

This scenario belongs not to Hollywood but to Richard Clarke, who has served four presidents, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, as national security adviser. In short, his startling new book, Cyber War, argues that the sky is about to fall on our heads.

The debate about this major security threat has developed an unusual intensity in a very short time. Nato agreed to create the awkwardly named Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn five years ago. Despite an enthusiastic reception for the idea, member states proved reluctant to put money on the table. The project was not mothballed but it struggled to advance much beyond the stage of some attractively designed headed notepaper.

In spring 2007, however, Estonia became engaged in a diplomatic spat with Moscow. In the midst of this tiff, the websites of government, media and financial institutions were subjected to so-called “DDOS” (distributed denial of service) attacks. This virtual assault by a “botnet” harnessed the power of tens of thousands of computers. Estonia’s network capacity came under huge strain; part of its “critical infrastructure” was temporarily put out of action. Although Russia denied any involvement, nobody seriously believes that the attack emanated from anywhere else.

Describing those events to me last year in Tallinn, a co-founder of the cyber defence centre said: “My first reaction was to order two cases of champagne to be delivered to Putin. The attack secured our funding.”

He was right. The attacks in Estonia triggered alarm bells all over Brussels and Washington. Suddenly, the wonk world was awash with tales of “digital Pearl Harbor” and “cybergeddon”, the much feared cyber offensive by some terrorist group or hostile power that would bring down everything from Facebook to the west’s power grid and nuclear capability.

History is likely to mark the Estonian events as the birth of another bureaucratic sub-class, the cyber­securocrat. For ever since, academics, civil servants and security professionals have raised the threat of cyberwar routinely at conferences and ministerial meetings. Critically, last summer, the US defence department designated cyber as the fifth domain in which it operates along with land, sea, air and space. As recently as last week, preparing for cyberwar assumed pride of place in Madeleine Albright’s strategic Nato review.

Cyber War will strengthen Clarke’s claims as one of the founding fathers of cybersecurocracy. He argues that due to an exceptional dependency on networked computer systems that are largely unregulated, it is just a matter of time before the US and its allies face cybergeddon. It is worth buying this book if only for his pithy five-page vision of this coming apocalypse and a return to stone-age conditions within a week, all because of a few pesky hackers and viruses.

In truth, Clarke, who composed this book with a younger and hence more tech-savvy friend, Robert Knake, is a much better writer than most policy advisers and civil servants (or he has a great editor). Combined with his extensive experience, this makes Cyber War in turn constructively critical about presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama (especially the middle one); revealingly indiscreet about the inanities of US government; wryly funny about wacky characters he meets along the way; but mostly very frightening about what awaits.

But while enjoying the verve of his writing, the question must still be asked: is he right? Because if so, he and his fellow securocrats will be the recipients of huge sums of taxpayers’ cash in the next few years as they seek to beef up virtual defences and (equally important) to change, monitor and regulate everybody’s behaviour online.

In so demanding, Clarke and his fellow believers have provoked a curious coalition of hostility which unites conservatives opposed to regulation of any sort with techno-enthusiasts who believe that frightening people in this way endangers the very freedom on which the internet depends.

Unsurprisingly, the truth lies in between. Some regulation is required and internet users, whether individual or institutional, need to become much more security conscious. Take Clarke’s warnings with a pinch of salt but do not dismiss them out of hand.

The writer’s latest book is ‘McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld’

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