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@ War

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4.5 Mushroom Heads
Shane Harris is an American journalist who has long covered electronic surveillance and cyber security. In ‘@War’, he describes the growth of American capabilities in cyberspace to both defend themselves and, if necessary, attack other states or agencies. It is rated as being so critical by the American government that cyberspace is regarded as being the fifth domain of warfare (the others being land, sea, air and space).

The book describes the American realisation of the growing threat in the cyber spectrum. So much American activity – military, commercial, government, economic, infrastructure and the like – is conducted in cyberspace that various individuals realised that there was no need to attack the USA physically; it could all be done electronically through the Internet. The lead in this was through the National Security Agency (NSA) as a defensive measure on the mainland USA and then developed further for offensive action in Iraq against the insurgency. This latter proved critical for many of the American actions in Iraq as it allowed them to penetrate and manipulate insurgent networks.

The Americans were also vulnerable. From 2006, the Chinese were able to steal the plans for the Joint Strike Fighter through computer hacking (and there are allegations that this provided much information to their own stealth fighter programs) and the NSA worked hard to develop their own capabilities. This was done in a number of ways: by aggressively promoting themselves within the US government to take the lead on this; by developing significant defensive measures; and, subsequently, offensive means.

Coupled with this was the growing realisation that the NSA could not do it all. As individuals were trained, they frequently left to work in the private sector. Ultimately, the government had to use the private sector as part of the cyber defences of the USA. This does raise the problem of how to stop individual companies (eg Google) launching cyber attacks of their own; if such actions are regarded as an act of war, how can governments control the agencies launching them?

This is a fascinating read. It took me a little bit of time to get into it (I am not a technophile by any stretch of the imagination but there were a number of areas of which I knew very little) but it does cover a key part of warfare – the rise of cyberspace as a battlespace for both offensive and defensive actions. The book is very much from the American perspective; the author does not examine GCHQ or other NATO agencies and I would imagine that the other states involved and criminal gangs would not really be willing to grant interviews to an American journalist! This is one of the issues about cyber warfare which became readily apparent on reading the book: much of it is hidden and difficult to track let alone understand.

The book would have benefitted from a glossary; if you don’t know a worm from a Trojan horse then it can be a little bit frustrating at times. In addition to technical data, simply listing the various agencies and companies would have been of great benefit. The author does an excellent job of describing them but they do come and go with great frequency and I had to check back a couple of times.

I did enjoy this book. This was a surprise as it was very much out of my comfort zone. It covers an area that is critical now for all governments and I recommend it to everyone.

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