Fred Kaplan discusses his book, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War.
The concept of “cyber war” goes back to the beginning of the internet, almost 50 years ago. A new book by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Fred Kaplan traces the history of this topic in his new book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: Ever since we’ve had the concept of the internet, the thought of cyber war has been in play.
Fred Kaplan: Right. In 1967, the ARPANET was about to roll out. The ARPANET was the precursor to the internet. This was a great boon to scientific research. All the contractors of the Defense Department and labs and universities could communicate with each other on one network, instead of having to go through a zillion consoles. But there was a computer scientist named Willis Ware. He had been a computer pioneer. He was the head of the Computer Science Department at the RAND Corporation and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board at the National Security Agency (NSA). He wrote a paper. It was classified at the time. It’s been declassified since. It’s fascinating to read. He basically said, look, once you put information on a computer network — once you have online access from multiple, unsecured locations — you’re creating inherent vulnerabilities. You’re not going to be able to keep secrets anymore.
When I was doing the research for my book, I talked to the man who was in charge of ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency; now known as DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. I said, “Were you familiar with Willis Ware’s paper?” He said, “Sure, I knew Willis.” I said, “What did you think?” He said, “Well, I took it to the team working on the ARPANET, and they said, ‘Don’t saddle us with a security requirement. Look how hard it is to do what we’ve done. It’s like telling the Wright Brothers that the first plane has to carry 20 passengers for 50 miles. Let’s do this one step at a time. Meanwhile, it’s going to be decades before the Russians can do anything like this.’” Well, it was about two and a half or three decades. In the meantime, whole networks and systems had sprouted up with no provision for security whatsoever. I look at this as the bitten apple in the digital Garden of Eden. It was something that was foreseeable, and by a small number of people, actually foreseen from the beginning; something inherent in the technology.
[email protected]: You start the book with a transitional moment. It involves President Reagan. It involves an actual Hollywood movie, War Games, starring Matthew Broderick.
Fred Kaplan: It’s a crazy story. It’s one of the big surprises that I came up with in the research. It’s 15 years after Willis Ware’s paper. Ronald Reagan is up at Camp David the first weekend of June in 1983. He watches a lot of movies up there. On that Saturday night, he watches War Games. This is the Matthew Broderick movie where he plays a teenage whiz kid who unwittingly hacks into the main computer at the North American Air Defense Command. Thinking that he’s playing a new, online game called Global Thermonuclear War, he almost sets off World War III. So, Reagan comes back to the White House. There’s a big meeting on Wednesday with his national security staff about something else completely. But at some point, he puts down his index cards, and he says, “Has anybody seen this movie War Games?” And nobody has. It had just come out.
“Whole networks and systems had sprouted up with no provision for security whatsoever. I look at this as the bitten apple in the digital Garden of Eden.”
He launches into this very detailed plot description. People are looking around the room like, where is this going? He turns to General John Vessey, who is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said, “General, could something like this really happen?” The general says, “I’ll look into that, Mr. President,” like generals do. He comes back a week later and says, “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.” This leads, 10 months later, to the presidential signing of the first national security directive on communications and computer security. It reads very much like government papers you read today: “Our computer systems,” which were then just going up, “are vulnerable to electronic interference and interception by foreign powers, by criminals.” But then it takes an interesting step.
This directive was essentially written by people at the NSA because they are the only ones who know anything about this. They write it so that the power to regulate and set the standards for all computers in the United States is controlled by the NSA. Some people on Capitol Hill don’t much like this.
[email protected]: That’s a little bit of Big Brother right there, isn’t it?
Fred Kaplan: Exactly. So, they rewrite this. But in the meantime, this is where it all begins. This is the moment that the scenarios of what makes this kind of system so vulnerable — the tensions between civil liberties and privacy, the political rivalries between the NSA and other branches of government, the things that now we’re all very familiar with — all have their birth moments in this bizarre episode where Ronald Reagan watches a movie and then asks a question that makes everybody in the room roll his eyeballs. Like, you know, what’s the old man up to now?
[email protected]: The other interesting part is Willis Ware was a consultant on the movie War Games?
Fred Kaplan: This is the funny irony, where things come full circle. The two guys writing this movie – who also later wrote a movie called Sneakers, which also had some impact – had heard from some friends who were hackers, about this technique called war dialing, or demon dialing. This is before the internet, where you program a phone to dial every number in an area code, and it rings twice. If a modem picks up, it squawks. The program records what that number is so you can come back to it later. That’s how Matthew Broderick breaks into the NORAD computer in the game. But they are wondering, is this plausible? I mean, wouldn’t it be a closed network? They lived in Santa Monica, which is where the RAND Corporation was. They called up the Public Affairs Department, laid out their problems. They said, “Oh, you want to talk to Willis Ware.” They go meet with Willis Ware, who is a very nice, genial guy. He listens to their problem, and he says, “You know, it’s funny, I designed the software for that computer in real life.” And he says, “You know, you’re right. It’s a closed system. But there’s always some officer who wants to work at home on the weekends, so they leave a port open. And yeah, if somebody dialed into that number, it could happen.” Then he said something that in retrospect, is very profound. He said, “You know what people don’t