The New York Times writer discussed cyber warfare and geopolitics.
Last Tuesday, April 12, David E. Sanger gave a public talk in TU’s Reynolds Center as part of the Presidential Lecture Series. Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and the author of “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age.” He was given a brief introduction by TU President Brad Carson before his talk. Previous Presidential Lecture Series speakers include historian Jared Diamond, journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and composer Stephen Sondheim.
Sanger’s main topic was the evolution of cyber attacks over the last 15 years and what the future holds for this frontier. Sanger argued that cyber weapons are often misconceived in popular media; they are not a new nuclear weapon. The real worry is far more subtle: the “selective change of data.”
Cyber warfare has yet to come under any sort of humanitarian convention, leaving the realm of acceptability incredibly murky. Many fear a foreign adversary decommissioning American electric grids, though so far the U.S. has yet to renounce using such an attack on our adversaries. While the attacks seem extreme, they are still generally preferable to a traditional invasion; if they are preventing war, they can be justified, in Sanger’s view. Still, a sort of Geneva Convention will likely prove necessary as the cyber front grows in importance.
One unique aspect of current and future cyber operations is the degree to which private corporations will be involved. When attacks target the software of Microsoft and Google, for example, these companies are likely to discover the intrusions before the government does. The data the companies hold on the American populace as well as the importance of their purposes within society may also make them prime targets for attack.
An absurd but valuable example of a cyber attack came from North Korea against Sony Pictures. Hackers attempted to wipe the hard drives of Sony’s computers before the release of their film The Interview, which has Seth Rogen attempting to assassinate Kim Jong-un. The question that the incident raised was the extent to which it is the government’s responsibility to respond to such an attack. Sony Pictures surely doesn’t represent “critical infrastructure,” but it seems unreasonable to expect a private American company to fend off massive, politically-related cyber attacks like this one.
Sanger also retold the story of Stuxnet, a joint effort between the U.S. and Israel to destroy centrifuges in Iran. The plan began under Bush, but was transferred to the Obama administration, where then-Vice President Biden was “deeply involved” with the operation. At some point, the Stuxnet virus was leaked and eventually used by malicious actors in other attacks. Sanger argues that we have to ask whether attacks like Stuxnet are worth orchestrating in light of these consequences; introducing a catastrophic exploit into the cyber ecosystem can have dire effects if it falls into the wrong hands.
Sanger then shifted to discussing the current war in Ukraine. The war has shocked Americans in its brutality: “We had assumed we evolved beyond this level of barbarism,” he said of the invasion. America’s less-than-stringent handling of Russia in the past may be partly to blame for the brazenness of Putin’s attack, in Sanger’s view. “We under-reacted to the annexation of Crimea,” he specified, claiming many Obama administration officials would now agree with the sentiment.
Sanctions, the main action the U.S. has engaged in against Russia, may in turn cause Putin to resort to cyber attacks, which could possibly inflict similar economic damage. The trouble with cyber attacks, in Sanger’s view, is that there isn’t a clear imperative to retaliate. “If they turn the lights off in Warsaw … I’m willing to bet we’re not [going to war].”
Sanger indicated that his next book would compare the Cold War to current international tensions involving Russia and China. In spite of the tragedy of the war in Ukraine, Sanger maintained that China is America’s “biggest long term strategic worry.”