Trouble Online

Review: 'The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace' by Alexander Klimburg

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December 3, 2017

It all started simply and with great optimism. The internet's developers—dubbed cyber dreamers by the author—envisioned a free, accessible, and easy means of global communication. In many ways those hopes have been realized, but in Alexander Klimburg's The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace, the reader is taken through a darker dream—the myriad ways cyberspace has been corrupted for criminal, terrorist, and political purposes.

Whether measured in financial loss, political disruption, or compromise of personal and proprietary information, the internet has become a challenging and in fundamental ways dangerous environment. Klimburg's book explains these developments in copious detail with discussion of botnets, zero days, advanced persistent threats, Cornflickr, and other terms. Attentive readers will take much from the author's considerable expertise, clear and explanatory prose, and breadth of discussion.

In so doing, Klimburg, as in Bill Gertz's iWar, adds to the growing literature of clear-eyed, authoritative authors who doubtless are shaping debate on how governments, corporations, and individuals should begin to understand the evolution of the internet and those who would use it to carry out cyberattacks.

There is a strong cautionary note underlying The Darkening Web and, if we are to believe Klimburg, there is ample reason for worry. He provides well-informed discussions on Chinese and Russian cyber activities, both of which have not only weakened U.S. national security by exploiting the vulnerabilities in our political processes, media, and complex infrastructure, but also by sowing disquiet in those institutions. For example, Klimburg's discussion of Russian motives for its cyber activities as well as the spy organizations that carry them out, especially the FSB and GRU, is spot on. They also play, he observes, a critical domestic security role with "an increasing ability within Russia to monitor effectively all internet traffic." Along with similar policies in China, Iran, and North Korea, Russia has turned the hoped-for openness of the internet into another means of state control.

Beyond the problems of cyber crime, cyber espionage, and political influence operations, there remain even more fundamental issues regarding how cyberspace already is posing a new set of challenges and will do so increasingly in the future. Is the world prepared for the growing complexity of the "Internet of Things" where refrigerators and other appliances, among common goods, are connected to the internet and therefore vulnerable to disruption? What will be the future of driverless cars if they are found to have similar vulnerabilities?

Of even greater importance is the underlying challenge of how to reconcile the unquenchable desire by government and business (as well as many consumers) for more information delivered easily and quickly with the challenge of protecting it not only from criminals and hostile nations but also those who are assumed to be defending privacy interests.

In the end, Klimburg's greatest contribution is that his penetrating work serves as a cautionary tale. We have entered a world we do not fully understand and can barely control. How and if we face up to that reality and take even a modicum of remedial steps will tell much about how we live in coming years.

Klimburg's work will leave the reader much better informed but also troubled by the scope of problems and challenges he describes.  Nonetheless, Klimburg ends on an optimistic note, concluding that "the battle taking place for the future of cyberspace … is nothing less than the struggle for the heart of modern democratic society…. It will not be a struggle that passes quickly but just as singular individuals in previous decades made a critical difference, we can all do so today."

Published under: Book reviews