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The Book of the Week is “Sandworm, A New Era of Cyberwar and the hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers” by Andy Greenberg, published in 2019. In this eye-opening volume, the author provided the backstory (out of chronological order, in a confusing, cherry-picked way) on how and why Russia has become the world’s biggest disrupter of society yet again through a new method. “Sandworm” refers to the Russian hackers who perpetrated cyberattacks. The author implied that knocking out power grids was one new way to destabilize target nations. But this is NOT a new idea.
Anyway, as is well known, in recent decades, for various reasons, Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, ordered his military to attack Estonia (in 1999 and later), Georgia in 2008 (yes, Soviet Georgia– not the American state), and Ukraine. These offensives were accomplished not just on the ground, but also through technology. Ukraine’s election process and electric power were both seriously damaged through the Internet.
In the United States, various federal agencies fight for the power to set policy on the country’s cybersecurity: FBI, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security; plus the U.S. military, North American Electric Reliability Corporation, and SANS Institute.
During the George W. Bush administration, America and Israel started a secret project to develop virulent malware that could wreak cyberwar on their enemies, but whose main purpose was to stop Iran from making nuclear weapons.
During the Obama administration, a young, bright Air Force officer was hired to build a cyber-security department from the ground up, within the NSA. However, he got disgusted with the abusive hierarchy of the American military, as new recruits’ talent was wasted because the status quo dictated that they pay their dues.
Meanwhile, after years of work, investigators found evidence that the Russians were to blame for penetrating America’s technology infrastructure in 2016. Even conservative radio-show host Rush Limbaugh jumped on the bandwagon, saying, “It was an acrylic [sic] keyboard!” [He meant Cyrillic].
In 2017, Britain’s National Health Service was disabled via malicious software code that demanded a small amount of bitcoins as ransom. Other entities hit included a German railway, a Russian bank , colleges in China, police departments in India, and malware called “NotPetya” that did a number on Ukrainian civilians who were really inconvenienced in living their everyday lives.
In sum, it’s deju vu all over again in terms of a Cold War arms race involving Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and the U.S. This time, though, the weapon is technology and the threats are made by numerous worldwide terrorist cells who can hack a target’s infrastructure and its political system (like with online voting in Arizona and Illinois) whenever their territory’s leader commands them to do so. Another difference is that the kinds of cyberattacks seen thus far are akin to one aspect of Nazism: sowing social unrest (rather than killing people; not that the Nazis didn’t also do that) to bring a nation down. Damage done by psychological harassment from foul play via the Internet is economically incalculable and extremely difficult to regulate because it is international.
As is well known, through the twentieth century into the new millennium, information sources evolved from newspapers, magazines, books, and radio, to television, cable television, and then the Internet. Currently, Google and social media can serve as news aggregators, but more often, they are for-profit propaganda tools, just like all the aforementioned media. Most Americans think of movies as entertainment rather than as a source of news or education, but in the Postwar Era, they have also become for-profit propaganda tools.
But take heart, America! There is at least one area of optimism that will help this country’s democracy continue:
Compared to now, there was as much as or even more social unrest in this country in 1968. Before and after, the nation suffered through two dictatorial presidents in a row— LBJ and Nixon– who were recruiting all men of military age; many against their will, to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in a war that was extremely expensive in so many ways. They sowed social unrest among their own people. America has not had two such presidents in a row since.
Even so, LBJ was kind of schizophrenic because he helped pass major civil-rights legislation. However, his ego wouldn’t let him order a stop to the war. Nixon went all-out on lies and deception, wreaking vicious political vengeance on his perceived enemies because he didn’t think he’d ever get punished. As journalist P.J. O’Rourke commented, beginning in the mid-1960’s, the Baby Boomers threw “a decade-long temper tantrum.” But now, their generation is wise to political shenanigans of decades past.
In 1972, voter apathy was so severe that Nixon was reelected in a landslide. Nowadays, voter turnout is at an all-time high. This is cause for celebration. Americans are starting to understand why voting is so important: it shows they believe in the democratic process (regardless of for whom they vote). A significant number of voters are required in order for democracy to work. When a dictatorial leader senses the people aren’t paying attention to what he’s doing, he will take advantage of that to acquire more power. He’s more likely to do the people’s will when he sees their anger is close to reaching critical mass.
On that note, read the book to learn much more about the author’s alarmist take on the global cybersecurity situation.