@War book review: The fifth domain

By: |
March 15, 2015 12:14 AM

@War delivers a masterstroke in the form of a riveting account of how the bloodbaths of yesteryears have metamorphosed into strategic executions in the virtual world

@War: The Rise of Cyber warfare
Shane Harris
Hachette
R499
Pp 263

Tomes have been scripted and many a reel shot to chronicle the endeavours—often in contravention of laid-down laws—of security agencies across the globe. The gigs by Mata Hari, the Rosenbergs and Kaus Fuchs in infiltrating enemy camps and sneaking out those priceless little pieces of strategic information are part of folklore now. But that was almost half-a-century ago. With the dawn of the digital age, both espionage and warfare have transcended beyond covert and clandestine operations to more meticulously planned and targeted attacks—and this time in cyberspace. Shane Harris delivers a masterstroke here in the form of a riveting account of how the bloodbaths of yesteryears have metamorphosed into strategic executions in the virtual world.

@War, thus, makes a captivating read, as it takes the reader through how the military have learnt to view the cyberspace as the fifth domain of warfare after land, air, sea and space. This has, in turn, led security agencies to harbour a clutch of hackers to unleash computer virus attacks against enemy forces. Harris’ arguments gain credence post revelations by Edward Snowden, which show that government agencies in the US, among others, are collaborating with Internet-based businesses like Google and Facebook to gain access to a minefield of data that can be turned against the target from miles away with just a click of the mouse.

Harris has stuck to a journalistic style of writing—having written for publications like The Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, The National Journal and The Washingtonian—in charting out how the US Department of Defense, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency fielded hackers and made the most of their cyber expertise to gain an upside in the war in Iraq. A significant chunk of the infrastructure—financial institutions, healthcare set-ups and even nuclear power stations—has a major influence of the Internet. And this makes them even more vulnerable to enemy strikes. And this time, in cyberwar, the strikes are even more subtle and lacerating. US President Barack Obama has said the Internet is a strategic national asset, which has prompted the military to forge a new alliance with major players in the technology space to keep a stern vigil on cyberspace to safeguard the country’s digital infrastructure.

The book kicks off with an account of one Bob Stasio, one of the US vanguards in cyber warfare, and how the military started tapping into the huge amount of data generated by tapping into phone calls and email exchanges to zero in on enemy locations and, more importantly, predict their modus operandi and foil—or to some extent mitigate—subsequent attacks. The book deftly chronicles how the idea of cultivating cyberspace germinated after the ghastly September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, which prompted the erstwhile NSA director Lieutenant General Michael Hayden to approve electronic monitoring of communication between the US and all countries known for providing a safe harbour to terrorists.

Apparently, the cyber force that played a pivotal role in Iraq took almost 10 years to build. And it was one Mike McConnell, a three-star admiral credited with introducing the senior US leadership to the concept of cyber warfare, who devised the first information warfare unit in 1996 at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters, where intelligence and military personnel raked their brains to develop technologies to break into computer networks and defend their own.

@War comes with many such never-heard-before snippets, which are bound to keep the reader glued, as he unravels the enormity of the
cyberwar being fought by nations today.

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