I’ve read the prologue and first chapter of the book This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends: The Cyber Weapons Arms Race, written by Nicole Perlroth of the New York Times. It seemed quite interesting, the blurb talking about zero-day bugs and the global market of hackers and intelligence agencies working to create and defend against them. I hope I’m wrong, perhaps the rest of the book will change my impression, but so far the book very much takes sides through omission and framing.
I should preface this by saying I don’t disagree with the premises the author does state. Perlroth describes how catastrophic these hacks and bugs could be in societies where the internet of things – when literally anything and everything has an internet connection – has exploded. So much of our infrastructure and way of life, particularly in the West, is purely digital and knocking that down for even a day would be quite serious. The risk of these threats – whether from hackers or nation states in opposition to the West – is real, if perhaps overblown at times, and cybersecurity is something everyone should be taking extremely seriously.
My brief observation, however, is on the framing. It very much is book putting forward the stereotypical New York Times in defence of Empire shtick, where the United States is a benign hegemon under constant threat across the globe. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, anywhere the “enemy” of the 24 hour news cycle is hiding, are all immediate threats that must be dealt with accordingly. But this misses a crucial aspect of the reality, one Perlroth actually brings up and then dismisses and unimportant in favour of the national security narrative.
The origins of this book really kicked off when Perlroth was in a closet working with other journalists to scour the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a leak that honestly took the world by storm in revealing the extent of government surveillance of American and global communications and then… everyone just seemed to go oh well, that’s happening. Coincidentally, Perlroth – who went on to embed herself in the dark underworld of cyberwarfare – said the whole NSA spying thing was not the biggest story or the greatest threat. On the latter point there might be an argument, but even so, downplaying the implications of such extreme state surveillance – combined with surveillance capitalism – as a journalist is, in my view, a shameful submission to power.
It also highlights the disconnect between reporting on “enemies” versus reporting on your own country. If you believe you are on the “good” side, then questioning the capabilities and actions of your own state is blasphemous, even if you tacitly acknowledge them as an aside. Beyond the surveillance revelations, the extent of cyberwarfare capabilities the US government agencies have is immense. So immense, in fact, that some have been stolen by foreign agents and used against us or our allies. Russia has certainly been using cyberwarfare in Ukraine, as they were before they invaded militarily in 2022.
However, there is a glaring omission in the discussion. Foreign enemies gaining these capabilities is a major threat and we are susceptible to attacks at any moment. But there is the disconnect. US capabilities are so much greater, US power is so much more influential, than the capabilities of Russia or China – hence the panic that they have gained access to some of the same tools now, sparking a new “arms race”. But it takes two to “race”, and who had the decked out arsenal?
The fact that the US has had these cyber weapons for years is left unquestioned. I hope I am wrong – I hope Perlroth goes into any cyber aggression or exploits the US has conducted. But a cursory flick through the book, and the lack of discussion beyond surface level acknowledgement so far, leaves me pessimistic. This, like many issues, is not a topic where sides can really be taken. Nation state superpowers, whether ours or the “other” ones, are not on our side – more so when speaking as a journalist who considers holding power to account to be the bare minimum. If we are to be scared of Russia or China hacking into our digital infrastructure, then I contend we should be equally as sceptical about the motives and actions of our own governments both domestically and internationally. I refuse to believe the US has not utilised these cyberwarfare capabilities to some extent – in fact, it’s obvious they have.
I intend to slowly chip through the book as time and other reading permits, and I am sure I will have more to say by the end. This was just a short observation on what, to me, seems to be a lack of self-reflection in mainstream journalism.