Book Review: An electronic Pearl Harbor is closer than you think
“Sandworm,” Doubleday, by Andy Greenberg
The Obama administration did not issue a single public rebuke after hackers knocked sections of Ukraine’s power grid offline on frigid December nights in 2015 and 2016. The unprecedented cyberattacks on civilian populations presaged the most devastating malware attack to date _ the June 2017 onslaught of NotPetya, which also targeted Ukraine but went further. Hobbled, too, were international business partners including Danish shipping multinational Maersk and pharmaceutical giant Merck. Damage was in the billions. In the U.S., hospital surgeries were impacted.
In “Sandworm,” Andy Greenberg sets out to track down the hackers behind those attacks, and his page-turning narrative sounds the alarm: We have failed to adequately confront a looming, existential threat. Our largely unquestioning dependence on digital technologies compounds the threat of a digital doomsday. The more reliant we become, the greater the potential peril. Power generation, health care and other vital services are at risk. Foreign agents have penetrated vital U.S. infrastructure, though the U.S. could also threaten global stability if its cyber-capabilities are carelessly loosed.
The 316-page real-life thriller takes the reader to the front lines of global cyberconflict, where U.S., Ukrainian and other computer security researchers painstakingly work to solve the authorship riddle. It concludes that the culprits _ initially dubbed ‘Sandworm’ by researcher John Hultquist after his team finds a reference to the Frank Herbert novel “Dune” in their code _ are the same state-backed hackers who wreaked havoc on the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, stealing and exposing Democratic National Committee emails and breaking into voter registration databases in at least two states.
The military-backed Kremlin cyber-agents, it turns out, were also behind hacking of global anti-doping agencies and the U.S. power grid _ and knocked 2018 Winter Olympics networks offline during opening ceremonies.
When he gets technical _ no way around it, really _ Greenberg, a senior writer at ‘Wired,’ keeps the geek jargon to a minimum. His previous book, “This Machine Kills Secrets,” explores how digital tech and the global Internet _ where we are all publishers _ have transformed whistleblowing and leaking, keying off the WikiLeaks saga.
In “Sandworm,” Greenberg exposes the still uncharted world of global cyber-competition _ a perilous new front in warfighting that lacks norms and rules of engagement where human casualties seem inevitable. He describes, for one, how a nation’s own espionage tools can be dangerously turned against it and its allies, how programs written by U.S. National Security Agency uber-hackers to break into computers running on Microsoft operation systems wound up being exploited by Russian military hackers. Were they pilfered? Or leaked? That remains unclear.
“Sandworm” ranks with the multiple books by James Bamford and with Clifford Stoll’s 1989 “The Cuckoo’s Egg” as essential reading for grasping digital technology’s role in the evolution of global conflict. It takes us well past the intrigue of cyber-espionage to contemplate _ now that the Trump administration has endorsed the use of offensive cyber operations _ how a global digital arms race might spiral out of control.