What the history of cyber war teaches us about Apple-FBI standoff and today's security nightmares

TechRepublic spoke with Fred Kaplan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, about how the 'little-known history' of cyber war informs debates over today's most pressing issues in security and privacy.

While "cyber war" has only recently come into the lexicon of lawmakers, the history goes way back—sparked when Ronald Reagan's internal antennae went off after seeing a sci-fi film in the early 1980s. Cyber war includes everything from cyber-spying (stealing data), to erasing computer records, and even destroying property (cyber attacks).

Fred Kaplan, who pens the "War Stories" column for Slate, is the author of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War(out today). TechRepublic spoke to Kaplan about the current state of cyber war, what we can learn from the history, and how the US is both the most powerful, and vulnerable, in the face of cyber attacks.

When did the term "cyber war" originate?

KAPLAN: The first government document that referred to "cyber war" was around 1997. It was an inter-agency group put together by a presidential directive on terrorism by President Clinton. One of the people on the panel had read William Gibson's science fiction, that used the term "cyberspace" and that's when it caught on. Before then, it was "computer crime," or "high-tech crime."

But even before that, it came into prominence in the government in a very strange way. President Reagan had seen the sci-fi film War Games in 1983, and in a meeting a few days later, asked the intelligence officer for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "Could something like this really happen?" The chairman went away for a week, came back, and said "Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think."

My book is like Groundhog Day. The same realization is made time and again, forgotten time and again, and rediscovered time and again. The big news of the book is that most people, even in the profession, don't even know there is a history. But it was predicted that these kinds of things would happen at the dawn of the internet, in the late '60s.

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Only now are we beginning to do something about it. But it's sort of too late. Nearly everything in modern life is hooked up to computers, and people all over the world know how to hack into computers.This was an inherent vulnerability in the architecture of the internet. Industry and the government and the military are starting to think about deterrents. But detection and resilience are becoming the code words. Somebody's going to get in, but the key is to detect they're in really fast, and then to repair and rebuild whatever damage has been done. It's almost been accepted as an inevitable feature of modern life.

Is it a politically divisive issue?

KAPLAN: I don't see it breaking down along party lines. It's political in a different sense. Tim Cook has raised the issue by fighting the FBI, saying private corporations shouldn't cooperate with the government, at all. Among Silicon Valley types who have a libertarian streak, it's a liberty versus security issue.

Author Fred Kaplan
Image: Carol Dronsfield

After Snowden, all the computer and software companies howled in protest—it was like the scene in Casablanca where Captain Renault closes down Rick's and says "I'm shocked that there's gambling going on here!" But for decades, telecoms dating back to Western Union in the '20s and AT&T in the '50s, and the internet pioneers—they've been complicit when the NSA and FBI needed information. In the internet age, it's a two-way street. There's a branch of the NSA called the information assurance directory, which has to vet the system and make sure it's secure. In the first Microsoft Windows program submitted to the NSA, they found 1500 points of vulnerability. They helped Microsoft patch them. They left a few back doors open so they could penetrate the systems when foreign governments bought them. Microsoft knew what was going on. They were complicit.

Just a few years ago, the Chinese barreled into the Chrome system. Broke into the source code. The NSA helped them patch that up. There's always been a back and forth. In fairness, Apple, although they've complied with court orders to open up phones, they have not been in these kinds of cooperative arrangements with the NSA. Somebody at the NSA said they wanted to talk to Cook, but he wouldn't go. Part of it is opportunism. This is the Apple brand. The other thing is, it's hard for the companies to complain about it when they collect all this information on their customers. Apple doesn't show it the way Google does, but they collect it.

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What role should tech companies play?

KAPLAN: I'm kind of surprised that Cook is making such a principled stance on this case. I don't think it's a very good case to do it on. I've talked to a lot of people about this, and I think there's a way to help the FBI without writing a whole new operating system, without exposing it to the world. It's a phone that's owned by San Bernardino county. The FBI figured out a clever workaround to it. I think they have a hard time arguing that this is creating precedence, when they've already created precedence in 70 other cases. At the same time, I don't want to live in a world where encryption is endangered.

If you look at the history of this, it's a constant cat and mouse game. There are multiple cat and mouse games. There's one between the US and other cyber-powers, and also between the intelligence communities and privacy advocates, and commercial companies on encryption. When AT&T split into multiple companies, they thought, "Oh no, what will we do with all these companies?" And when fax machines came out, "How are we going to intercept fax machines?" But they've found a way. And the companies have found a way to make something more secure. I think it's an inherent part of living in a digital age. It's a fight that will persist. The FBI is being a little disingenuous too. My guess is that they have everything that would be valuable, the metadata from the carrier. I think they're using this as an ideal case to expand their powers and Apple is using it as a case to protect encryption. I think Cook will be outmaneuvered on this one. I don't think it's a good case for them to take.

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This has been going on for 30-40 years. It's just in the last three or four years that the American public, including most legislators who don't sit on intelligence committees, even know that this has been going on.

How do you see cybertraining fitting into military operations?

KAPLAN: This has become a big deal. "Cyber" is fashionable. It's the one part of the military budget that's soared. All the services have "cyber schools" and training institutes. US Cyber Command is expanding its cyber attack teams by a factor of four. This is 14,000 people. Big money is riding on this. The thing that disturbs me is that nobody has come up with a doctrine on how to actually use these things in war, or how to deter the enemy from attacking. Or different levels of cyber attack. Why would you want to go into an enemy's critical infrastructure as leveraging some kind of war? You can imagine this as a tactical thing, but how you control escalation, keep things from getting out of hand, is still uncertain. The Pentagon is just now looking into "what is a cyber-deterrent?" They're putting the weapon ahead of the policy. The whole machinery is being putting up without thinking about what it means.

Even when nuclear weapons came out in the '40s, there were civilian strategists examining these basic questions. There was a lot that was secret about nuclear weapons, but what they did about how many there were, what the effects are—that was all out there. Everything with cyber, in the NSA, has been top secret. We're building this whole new kind of warfare without thinking about what it means, how you use them, how do you not use them. What little thinking is going on is happening in the confines of the most secretive organization in America.

Does cyber war even the playing field between different countries because of the low cost?

KAPLAN: The ironic thing is that the US has been the leader, yet we are the most vulnerable. Much more of our stuff in civilian society, in critical infrastructure, and in the military, is dependent on computers, which are vulnerable. And networks, which are vulnerable. We're throwing all these stones from inside a glass house. If something does get started, we are vulnerable from day one. We have a qualitative superiority in weapons, but it's all linked to computer networks. It's interesting, we're starting to back pedal. The Navy is training people on ships to navigate using a sextant, looking at stars, out of fear that the data linked to GPS will be hacked.

China, Russia, and other countries have already scoped out our networks. We've scoped out their network too. It's not rocket science. If we can do this, they can do this. That was the great revelation—anything we can do to them, they can do to us. We aren't hacking into their banks to get trade secrets. But we have been hacking into their military command control sites, their critical infrastructure, stuff like that. In the professional terminology, there's "computer network defense," "computer network attacks," and "computer network exploitation." You get into a network to see what's going on. You can do it as an extended form of defense. Or it could be the preparation of your attack on them. The two are exactly the same until you press the button.

The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said that the internet of things the greatest threat facing America today. What do you think?

KAPLAN: It's probably overdoing it. There are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world. I'd rather be hacked, have all my stuff hacked, than have the smallest nuclear weapon land in my neighborhood.

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Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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