Book Review – Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War; peek into the past, present & future

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Published: June 26, 2016 6:07:47 AM

Chronicles of cyber warfare over the years

CYBER WARFARE can be tough to explain. Like the thousands of lines of coding that run through a computer programme, it entails complex technicalities. But in Dark Territory, Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and author Fred Kaplan takes readers through tapped phone lines and top-secret cyber units and operations to illustrate how US policymakers and organisations realised that the ‘threat’ was real and prepared for it. Intelligence agencies and bodies like the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and the department of defense were key players in these preparations. Their evolution over the years is also depicted in detail in the book.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating bits is the awareness of different US presidents towards cyber war. Right at the beginning, Kaplan recalls the time when Ronald Reagan saw War Games (1983), a movie about a techie teenager, who unintentionally hacks into the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The movie prompted Reagan to ask the US military’s top officer at a White House meeting, “Could something like this really happen?”

Over the years, the cyber security issue went dormant, only to re-emerge during the tenures of Bill Clinton and George W Bush. But it was during Barack Obama’s presidency that “cyber warfare took off”. As Kaplan mentions in one of the chapters, Obama “was the first American president who surfed through cyberspace in his daily life” and “understood the stakes”.

The book also focuses on some recent incidents of cyber attacks that prove that the looming threat is omnipresent. The attack on Sony Pictures by North Korean hackers and an assault by Iranian cyber criminals on Las Vegas Sands Corporation, a conglomerate with assets worth more than $20 billion, are prime examples of strikes that were launched “not for money, trade secrets, or traditional espionage, but to influence a private company’s behavior”.

There is no significant mention of India in the book, but there are certain topics that could be brought to the attention of Indian policymakers and people responsible for the country’s cyber security. One such issue is ‘critical national infrastructure’. In the chapter A Cyber Pearl Harbor, Kaplan writes about a ‘critical infrastructure working group’, which was formed in June 1995 in the aftermath of the bombing of a federal office in Oklahoma City. The group came up with a list of eight infrastructures that were critical “to the functioning of a modern society”: telecommunications, electrical power, gas and oil, banking and finance, transportation, water supply, emergency services and ‘continuation of government’ in the event of a war or catastrophe. All these sectors rely heavily on computer networks. As a country that aims to make government services available on the Internet and improve our online infrastructure, one wonders how prepared are we when it comes to these eight sectors and many more.

Dark Territory offers thrilling insights into high-level politics, eccentric computer hackers and information warfare. In 15 chapters—some of them named after classified codenames and official (and unofficial) hacking exercises—Kaplan has encapsulated the past, present and future of cyber war.

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