Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War

  • Published

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War by Fred Kaplan. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2016, 343 pp.

In Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, Fred Kaplan details the extraordinary pace at which technology has changed since the Cold War and describes the dangers posed by cyberattacks. He makes frequent connections between actions taken by the United States and countries around the world as each strives to achieve superiority in the newest emergent war-fighting domain. The overarching story he tells is one of a world distracted by nuclear fears during the Cold War, while behind the scenes a different battle was taking place over computer networks. Written with expert insight into the thought processes of some of America’s top leaders, Kaplan connects the dots on all of the various activities occurring across the country as the US develops tools to edge out adversaries in the cyber arms race and how new races are forming as more nations realize the strategic and tactical advantages that cyber presents in the battlefield.

The book is written as a historical novel that gives intimate details about the conversations occurring within the government as cyber threats became more apparent. It is written in a story-like fashion, which makes the content light-hearted and fun to read, while providing the same level of detail as would be obtained from a university textbook. It is clear that Kaplan has spent a considerable amount of time getting Washington insider–level knowledge on the inner circles of the cyber debate. Given Kaplan’s extensive credentials writing articles for several of the nation’s top newspapers as well as graduate degrees from MIT, it is no surprise that the book is both comprehensive in content and precise in technical and political acumen.

Kaplan begins by alluding to the infamous question from former Pres. Ronald Reagan after he saw the movie Wargames, about whether a teenager would really be able to stumble onto DOD networks and interact with a missile-warning simulation system. The internet, as was quickly being discovered, improved worldwide communication by transferring data instantaneously but was designed inherently insecure, leaving large portions of the national infrastructure vulnerable. Reagan, after getting confirmation from Gen John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that it was indeed possible, proceeded to sign NSDD-145 to give the National Security Agency (NSA) and other organizations the responsibility of securing the country’s digital assets. This was a quick fix designed to address a complex problem, and Kaplan does a great job of explaining that the core insecurity issues took several decades to accumulate and that no quick fix would solve them. He discusses the history of the internet back to ARPANET, including Willis Ware’s warnings about the risks of networking computers and how the internet evolved into a conglomeration of various subnetworks that expanded this risk across the globe.

He reviews several engagements in which treating cyber as an operational domain gave the US an advantage in combat. In Operation Desert Storm, for instance, the Joint Intelligence Center headed by Rear Adm John “Mike” McConnell was able to penetrate deep into Saddam Hussein’s C2 network and determine the location of the switches for the network. Those areas were targeted first, resulting in the Iraqi military defaulting to microwave signals that the Americans were easily able to intercept. The author makes note that the US at the time was significantly better equipped to do this raw RF signal collection and processing and that units like Information Assurance Directorate at NSA were still developing their capabilities during this timeframe. Just a few years later, the Clinton administration’s PDD-39 on terrorism would lead to significant findings about the vulnerability of the nation’s critical infrastructure to cyber threats, leading to the first fears of a pending “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

Toward the end of the Clinton administration, the Defense Department launched several high-level exercises that drew alarming conclusions about the country’s cybersecurity posture. Kaplan details how exercises such as Eligible Receiver, in which an NSA red team hacked into DOD networks (including the National Military Command Center on the first day) using commercial equipment and mostly by using default credentials, gave insight into how easily even government networks could be penetrated. This exercise showed how the offensive capabilities of the DOD cyber apparatus were starting to take shape but that the defensive side was at a significant disadvantage. The author notes this as a theme that exists even today, where offensive cyber operations are given better funding and leverage than defensive cyber operations. Kaplan continues to discuss the policies of the next few presidential administrations to give the reader comprehensive insight into how cyber policy has evolved over time.

Kaplan tries to stay relatively objective in his documenting of the evolution of cyber warfare from the US perspective. He accurately draws distinct parallels between nation-state actions taken in cyberspace and a larger strategic objective of information warfare that has existed for centuries and concludes with warnings about the eventuality that these actions will translate into acts of destruction as opposed to disruption. He succinctly captures the evolution of cyber and concludes with the main argument that we are heading into unknown territory; it is not known how cyber will be used in the future and what will be considered off-limits from a warfighting perspective. The only thing we know is that cyber weapons will be used, and it could be a very ugly war.

Dark Territory is a light read and covers the history of cyber, alluding to early inventions from the 1950s to the beginning of the information age in the 1980s to present- day cyber warfare operations. Anyone who has heard about the latest corporate hacking incident or has seen news stories about various government agencies involved in cyber operations will immediately recognize many of the points being made. Kaplan does a great job of helping to fill the gaps of information about the conflicts and dialogues that were happening at the highest levels of government and ultimately leaves the reader questioning the current states of cybersecurity on personal, national, and international levels. This book is a solid entry point into cyber warfare and will guide the reader to ponder this secret history for clues into what the future may hold.

1st Lt James Corcoran, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."