It was June 2017 when notPetya brought global trade and shipping to an absolute standstill. From the relative safety of my world in Austin, Texas, I read everything I could about this cyberattack. My morbid fascination has not abated, because I have been waiting for Sandworm to come out for months in order to read more.
The hacks are incredible, mortifying, horrifying. It dives in just enough to the technical side to give you some terms to Google, but stayed accessible enough that I (a rube) could enjoy it. I don’t think everybody I know would enjoy it, but if you have a passing curiosity with cybersecurity and/or the modern Russian state, you will. Read this excerpt of the book from Wired and I think you’ll get a good sense of it.
Most of the book is a portrait of the hacks. The “so what” really comes together at the end. The Russians (the state proper) are behind the most destructive, chaotic cyber attacks in recent memory.
These hacks don’t move the ball forward, from a military perspective. They capture nothing, advance nothing, besiege nothing. They are asymmetric attacks from a country with a tiny economy and few resources. They seek to disrupt, to demoralize, to scare the shit out of us.
They used to be someone. Now they’re not. Knocking out a power grid or taking down the Olympics is a reminder, a shout, that they still exist and they can do some damage if they feel like it.
But we can bring power back online. We can use pen and paper. There are ways of being resilient. The book closes with a chapter about the head of In-q-tel (a cybersecurity legend), who lives somewhat off the grid.
I wasn’t expecting this book to have any possible connection to what’s happening in the world right now – but strangely, it does. We are learning a lot about ourselves right now. When major systems are disrupted, like our supply chains, how resilient are we?
What skills do you and I have to survive, if push comes to shove? What if the power goes out for a long time? What if certain products become unavailable? What… if?
I don’t think anybody anticipated testing these questions in the context of a pandemic. It’s somewhat of a brutal sandbox to find out whether or not our infrastructure is cyber-attack resilient.
The US has refused to draw any lines in the sand, because we want to reserve the right to use the kinds of cyber attacks described in the book on our enemies (and we already have, when a few years ago we destroyed thousands of Iranian centrifuges at their nuclear project, a project started by Bush and enhanced by Obama). If we won’t refuse to condemn cyberattacks that disrupt civilian infrastructure, there’s nothing holding back the global arms race.
So way to get ahead on that vegetable garden.
Cybersecurity, particularly in the context of Putin’s ambitions, is something I’ve been looking at from various writers since 2016, people like Gary Kasparov, for example. But I’ve seen no more succinct, trenchant description of one of the most geopolitically important events of our time. The techniques of communication allow actors, like Putin but also China, to take advantage of asymmetries in warfare on this new battleground for individual minds in all digitally accessible societies. There’s a sense of entropy in the political economy sense, where it’s far easier to tear down institutions and norms propping up an old order, far more difficult to expend the energy to sustain them. Great post! I’m going to add Sandworm to my 2020 reading list.
It is so great to hear from you! This book is absolutely worth the read, and I was not expecting the geopolitical insights that came through at the end, but felt like the natural conclusion when all was said and done. You’re going to love it.