This book was an accidental find. I stumbled onto an ad in the pages of a recent issue of the Atlantic and, let’s face, it the title grabs you. The rest of the title, “The Cyberweapons Arms Race,” sealed my desire to read this. The author, Nicole Perlroth, is a cyber-security reporter for the New York Times who covered the Edward Snowden leaks when they broke. I’m interested in how history tends to get lost very quickly, and so I’m always drawn to books that walk through history that I’ve lived. I remember most of the events that Perlroth discusses: Stuxnet, the Snowden debacle, to say nothing of more recent events in our tumultuous political time. I thought that I knew the details of these events. I was honestly shocked at how little I knew. The title of the book is designed to give one a sense of dread, I think, and I would say that it succeeds. You really can’t walk away from this book without a sobering sense of reality settling on you at best, and a sense of digital paranoia at worst.
Perlroth walks us through a detailed underground history of events that led us to the place that we inhabit today. She defines how hackers began exploiting software, traces a tangled web through the way that hacking was weaponized by the governments of the world, and how cyber warfare became commonplace. What I had never realized prior to reading this was that there is an underground market for selling exploits, a market that is extremely lucrative for hackers who want to monetize their time, hackers that are often, by Perlroth’s description, quite mercenary in their approach to doing business. She walks us through how the exploits sold by such hackers were used in some of the world-changing cyber-attacks of our time, such as Stuxnet.
What I appreciate, especially given that I work in web technology for a living, is that Perlroth never paints all hackers with a broad brush. While she never uses the standard terms to deleniate between “white hat” and “black hat” hackers, I think that she avoids this on purpose, because she wants to make it clear that the temptation to label these hackers as either good or bad is misplaced. Their lives, and their vocation, is just not that simple.
This book is remarkably well-researched. The reader experiences key events in the development of the cyber arms race: The Google hack, the election interference of 2016, the politics behind the development of Stuxnet…in deep detail that leaves you with new appreciation for the history behind our current situation. The end goal of this is to leave the reader with an unsettled understanding: we have, through a series of cultural events and technological innovations, set ourselves up for a painful failure, a failure that has the potential to be quite devastating.
Some of my favorite recollections from the author are her own close calls with obvious hacking attempts into her own life. If you’re not digitally paranoid now, you will be after reading these stories.
My biggest issue with the writing of the book is that, in order to achieve a certain tone, the author casually uses unprofessional language that I think detracts from the feel of journalistic integrity that the book should have. The quality of the research and storytelling still stand out, but I think that there would be a more authoritative perception had the author made different choices here. I also was not impressed with the quality of the Audible production: it was poorly edited and the narrator didn’t capture the cadence of the writing. This does not detract from the quality of the book itself, though.
Please do yourself a favor and read this book. Even if you do not have an interest in the topic, this is a subject that effects all of us in ways that we don’t even realize and, if the author’s predictions are correct, will come to impact us more heavily in the future. This is a heavy read, but you will be glad that you’ve experienced this history.