Gordon Corera's Cyberspies Explores the Tumultuous History of Digital Espionage

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Gordon Corera's <i>Cyberspies</i> Explores the Tumultuous History of Digital Espionage

Society is drowning in an ocean of data. Not only has the internet created an ethereal Library of Alexandria with vast swaths of human knowledge, but the computers we tote in our pockets are absolute data machines. They continuously track our locations, interests, friends and desires, creating personalized prints in a great portrait of information.

This is perhaps the most important ocean ever, and the battle to control it has been the silent engine driving much of Western ingenuity. State and criminal elements find themselves plying the same waters as private companies and individuals, as this world of espionage, surveillance and hacking becomes our own.

Cyberspies, BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera’s sweeping history of spying, surveillance and subversion in the digital world, does not tell us to whom the data ocean should belong. The paradox of privacy versus security may never truly be answered—and definitely not to everyone’s satisfaction. What Corera seeks to do instead is to arm us all with that which spies so feverishly desire and hoard: information.

In that, Corera succeeds. Exhaustively reported and thoroughly annotated, Cyberspies traces the computer’s role in espionage and surveillance from World War I (when “computers” still referred to people) to World War II (when “computers” could first refer to things) into the uneasy, sickeningly lit world post-Edward Snowden.

Beginning with English ship the Alert cutting German telegraph lines in high seas, Corera illuminates the shadowy world of “signals intelligence,” the study and control of your enemies’ various communication channels. It was the desire to crack Axis encrypting machines like Enigma that led to the development of computers as we know them, and it was the insatiable thirst for information and the power to manipulate it which led to the United State’s technological hegemony.

Corera fills in the dots between the Alert’s clipping of the Kaiser’s cables and Edward Snowden’s revelations, predominantly tracking how computers have shaped spying in the United States and United Kingdom (and highlighting their primary antagonists in cyberspace: China and Russia). Via interviews, quotes, memos and policy papers from some of the most important figures in the field—from Alan Turing himself to former American and British intelligence directors to hackers—and Corera’s engaging prose, Cyberspies boils down a daunting topic to a (relatively) accessible read.

There is more to Cyberspies than a simple timeline, although the historical events often read like mini-thrillers throughout. (Most exciting is the story of Stuxnet, the first virus used for sabotage purposes, sending Iranian centrifuges spinning into oblivion to halt that nation’s nuclear program.) Perhaps most interesting is not how various countries came to clash in cyberspace, but the reasoning why they did so. The American interest in profit post-WWII not only led to a robust technology sector and American infrastructure being the de facto standard for the internet, but it also meant that, as one of the most wired nations on earth, it was also among the most susceptible. The British, intent on keeping their secrets after World War II, let the Americans get the glory and the cash, the trade-off being highly specialized crypto-crackers and a need to work with American computing muscle. Chinese thinking on intellectual property law and desire for massive amounts of information inform their state-sponsored corporate espionage, while the classic Russian surgical method of “low and slow” spying—in use since the days of the KGB and Stasi—means that while the Chinese make the ruckus and fling legions of hackers at countries, the Russians quietly sneak in and wreak untold havoc.

Corera makes clear the various benefits and deficits of living in—and spying on—a digital world. Every wire that makes life easier is a wire which can be exploited; every vulnerability found in a program can be used by you and against you.

What holds true throughout the rapidly shifting history Corera chronicles is the role of living, breathing, thinking human beings. In the end, the best firewalls and safety procedures are no match for one person possessing the right information. People will always be capable of defeating or infiltrating even the most sophisticated systems.

Thrust as we are into the world of digital espionage, Cyberspies’ history is immediate; it is our own.

You are now information; shouldn’t you be informed?

B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, VICE, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth, The Classical and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.