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Slate columnist Fred Kaplan’s new book details – exhaustingly as well as exhaustively – the alarms and innovations that made mass surveillance
Ronald Reagan loved movies. One night in June 1983, he sat down at Camp David to watch WarGames. The film stars Matthew Broderick as a tech-wiz teenager who unwittingly hacks into the main computer at Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Thinking he has merely stumbled upon a new computer game, the hacker comes dangerously close to starting a third world war.Five days later, the president was in a meeting with the secretaries of state, defense and treasury, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and 16 senior members of Congress. They were there to discuss a new nuclear missile and the prospect of arms talks with the Russians. When Reagan began to give a detailed account of the plot of WarGames, eyes rolled.
Then the president turned to John Vessey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, and asked: “Could something like this really happen?”
One week later, General Vessey returned with a startling answer: “Mr President, the problem is much worse than you think.”
Thus begins Dark Territory, Fred Kaplan’s important new book about the history of cyberwar. “When Reagan asked Vessey if someone could really hack into the military’s computers,“ Kaplan writes, “it was far from the first time the question had been asked.”
It turned out that there was a good reason WarGames was so accurate: for their research the screenwriters had interviewed Willis Ware, who wrote a 1967 paper called Security and Privacy on Computer Systems and for years headed the computer science department at the RAND Corporation, an Air Force-funded think tank.
Reagan’s casual inquiry set off the first of many efforts by the intelligence establishment to figure out a way to bolster America’s defensive and offensive cyber capabilities. Each is described in extreme detail in Kaplan’s new book.
Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate, and he generally does a good job of making even the most technical subjects accessible to the layman. Sometimes the particulars of bureaucratic infighting can be almost numbing, but whenever the narrative threatens to bog down the author manages to revive the reader’s interest.
Take the practice attack the US carried out on itself in 1997, which penetrated the entire defense establishment network in four days, including the National Military Command Center, the facility that transmits orders from the president during wartime. In Kaplan’s words: “Most of the officers manning those servers didn’t even know they’d been hacked.”
It turns out cyber warfare has been playing an important role in American warfare for longer than many would suspect. When General Eric Shinseki, the general in charge of Nato forces in Bosnia, realized his troops were being attacked by demonstrators stimulated by Serbian television stations, he managed to install remote control boxes on five transmitters. After that, whenever a newscaster started to promote a demonstration, Shinkseki’s men simply turned the TV signal off.
When Michael Hayden became director of the National Security Agency, he created the Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO). It created tools resembling “something out of the most exotic James Bond movie”.
These, Kaplan writes, included LoudAuto, which activated a laptop’s microphone to monitor all conversations in its vicinity; HowlerMonkey, which extracted and transmitted files via radio signals even if a computer wasn’t hooked up to the internet; MonkeyCalendar, which tracked a cellphone’s location; NightStand, which could load a computer with malware from several miles away; and RageMaster, which tapped into a computer’s video signal so a TAO technician could see whatever a target was watching.
All of this escalating technological prestidigitation eventually merged with post 9/11 fears of terrorism to produce the spymaster’s dream, and what should have been the citizen’s ultimate nightmare – what Kaplan refers to a little too benignly as “a growing if somewhat resigned acceptance of intrusions into daily life”.
This sea change was codified in the summer of 2007 by the passage of theProtect America Act, only eight days after George Bush proposed it in his weekly address. NSA director Keith Alexander was able to convince his colleagues it now made sense to “scoop up and store everything from everybody. NSA lawyers even altered some otherwise plain definitions, so that doing this didn’t constitute ‘collecting’ data from American citizens, which would be illegal: under the new terminology, the NSA was just storing the data, the collecting wouldn’t happen until an analyst went to retrieve it from the files …”
These of course were the practices that largely remained hidden from view until,in June 2013, Edward Snowden performed the singular service of revealing “a massive data-mining operation, more vast than any outsider had imagined”.
It turned out, as Kaplan writes, that “the active surveillance of a single terrorist suspect could put a million people, possibly a million Americans, under [the NSA’s] watch. The revelation came as a shock, even to those who otherwise had few qualms about the occasional breach of personal privacy”.
But instead of increasing our security, such methods have simply created a new form of mutually assured destruction. Congress has been told that China and “probably one or two other countries” are definitely inside the networks that control America’s power grids, waterworks and other critical assets. And though no American official has said so in public, America is also inside the networks “that controlled such assets in other countries”.
“Would burrowing more deeply deter an attack, or would it only tempt both sides, all sides to attack the others’ networks preemptively?” These, Kaplan writes, were the questions that “some tried to answer but no one ever did” during the nuclear confrontations of the cold war.
Now we face exactly the same questions, with no good answers for them.
- Charles Kaiser is the author 1968 In America, The Gay Metropolis and, most recently The Cost of Courage.