THE PERFECT WEAPON Reveals the Inside Story of the Rise of Cyberweapons
The Rise of Cyberweapons in All Their Forms Has Transformed Geopolitics like Nothing Since the Invention of the Airplane and the Atomic Bomb
For seventy years, the thinking inside the Pentagon was that only nations with nuclear weapons could threaten America’s existence. But that assumption is now in doubt: in a world in which almost everything is interconnected—phones, cars, electrical grids, and satellites—everything can be disrupted, if not destroyed. In THE PERFECT WEAPON (on sale June 19), New York Times national security correspondent and bestselling author David Sanger vividly details how this new revolution, being conducted largely in secret, is reshaping global power.
“Cyberweapons are so cheap to develop and so easy to hide that they have proven irresistible for large and small powers alike,” Sanger writes. “Because such attacks rarely leave smoking ruins, Washington remains befuddled about how to respond. Our adversaries have realized that it’s a great way to undercut us without being made to pay any real price for such actions.”
Focusing largely on the “Seven Sisters” of cyber conflict—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Iran, Israel, and North Korea—THE PERFECT WEAPON is the dramatic story of how cyber conflict has expanded since the revelation of the American/Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. Sanger exposed the story of Washington’s role in those attacks six years ago, in his book CONFRONT AND CONCEAL. Now he explores how great and small powers alike have moved into a new era of constant sabotage, misinformation, and fear, in which everyone is a target.
A decade ago, there were three or four nations with effective cyber forces; now there are more than thirty. As of early 2018, the best estimates suggest there have been upward of two hundred state-on-state cyberattacks over the past decade or so—a figure that describes only those that have become public. Yet as the global cyber conflict took off, America turned out to be remarkably unprepared. Its own weapons were stolen from the American arsenal by a group called Shadow Brokers and were quickly turned against the United States and its allies. Even while the United States built up a powerful new Cyber Command, it had no doctrine for how to use it. Deterrence failed. When under attack-by Russia, China, Iran or North Korea-the government was often paralyzed, unable to use cyberweapons when America’s voting system, its electrical system, and even routers in citizens’ homes had been infiltrated by foreign hackers. American citizens, Sanger concludes, have become the collateral damage in a war being fought in foreign computer networks and along undersea cables.
Moving from the White House Situation Room to the dens of Chinese government hackers to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, the uniquely sourced THE PERFECT WEAPON shares never-before-revealed details of Trump Administration battles over preemptive cyber strikes; America’s constant cyberwar with North Korea; a cyber battle with Russia that preceded—and predicted—the 2016 election attacks; and more.
The United States has worsened the problem by shrouding its cyber activity in secrecy, concealing details about attacks made against its own systems and how it has infiltrated the networks of both adversaries and allies. While three presidents—Bush, Obama, and Trump—have reached for cyber weapons as a short-of-war means of undercutting adversaries, they have all failed to answer the fundamental questions that this new era of conflict raises. It is unclear who has, and who should have, the authority to order cyber strikes. There is little agreement over how to interpret other nation’s activities in US networks, and where the line between espionage and attacks are drawn. And, in the case of attacks, a precedent has not been set for how the United States can respond without escalating a conflict.
The secrecy surrounding these programs obscures most public debate about the wisdom of using them, or the risks inherent in losing control of them. “The dynamic of cyberattacks is completely different from what we grew accustomed to during the superpower standoffs of the twentieth century,” Sanger writes. “The lesson of the past decade is that, unless shooting breaks out, it will always be unclear if we are at peace or war. We are living in a gray zone, one of constant digital conflict. To survive it, we must make some fundamental decisions, akin to ones we made after the invention of the airplane and the atomic bomb-decisions that enabled us to navigate a constant state of peril.”
But this time, the decision is not only the government’s. As the Russian interference in our 2016 election, China’s theft of personal data, and North Korea’s ingenious attacks on American companies show, American technology firms are also major players. And that is how this era differs from the Cold War: the key strategic decisions are being made not only in the Situation Room, but in corporate boardrooms, where everything from Facebook’s monitoring of election posts to Apple’s battles with the FBI over encryption play out. The biggest decisions may not be under the president’s control.
For years, David Sanger has been one of the biggest voices in American journalism on the challenges to the country’s national security. With THE PERFECT WEAPON he explains how far more complex the emergence of cyber weapons has made a world that is already afire.