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Event Details

Date

Tuesday, Jan 22, 2019

Time

12:15 pm

Venue

LBJ School of Public Affairs, Bass Hall

The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age

The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age

Tuesday, Jan 22, 2019  |  12:15 pm   |  LBJ School of Public Affairs, Bass Hall

On Tuesday, January 22, 2019, the Strauss Center welcomed David E. Sanger, acclaimed New York Times National Security Correspondent, to the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Sanger gave a talk on his most recent book “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age’’ which examines the emergence of cyber conflict as the primary way large and small states are competing and undercutting each other, changing the nature of global power. This talk was part of the Strauss Center's Brumley Speaker Series Series.

Photos from the event can be found here. The video recording can be found here

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David Sanger opened his presentation by showing a picture taken in the basement of the Democratic National Committee. In the center stands the tan file cabinet equipped with a full-length locking bar that was broken into during the Watergate scandal in early 1970s. To the right of the file cabinet was the much smaller server hacked by the Russians ahead of the 2016 presidential election. What differentiated the two cases, noted Sanger, was the fact that in the Watergate scandal, those responsible had to tape the door lock open and gain physical access. In the 2105 DNC hack, those responsible were thousands of miles away in another country.

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According to Sanger, cyberattacks are the perfect weapon for three primary reasons. First, cyberattacks are cheap. Compared to a conventional 500-pound bomb or a precision airstrike, rendering a business or manufacturing facility inoperative with a cyberattack is extraordinarily cheap. And a cyberattack is far easier to purchase and use. Second, cyberattacks are deniable. Unlike conventional weapons than can easily be traced when fired, cyberattack attribution is not immediately apparent. Last, cyberattacks can be calibrated. Adversaries launch scaled cyberattacks that can be turned off at a moment’s notice allowing them to attack the United States and her allies short of war.

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The most useful historical analogy for cybersecurity is not nuclear weapons as many suggest, according to Sanger. Instead, he suggested that the development of the airplane in 1909 is a more fitting analogy. The airplane first saw service as a weapon of surveillance, allowing battlefield commanders to fly over enemy positions and take photographs before using traditional offensive maneuvers to attack the enemy’s weakest positions. Many military leaders still see cyber-capabilities as a complement to traditional battlefield operations. Sanger highlighted that the timespan from the Wright brothers first achieving flight in 1909 to the dropping of the atomic bomb was only thirty-five years. If we measure the current state of cyber-conflict using the aviation analogy, we are around WWI in terms of developments, according to Sanger. “We know what the delivery system looks like but not the warhead.”

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The biggest turning point in cyber competition was Olympic Games, the code-name given to the highly-classified American-Israeli cyberattack on the Iranian nuclear program. This was the first time a cyberattack was used to have kinetic effects, in this case causing almost one thousand nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control and self-destruct. This set the precedent for a number of cyberattacks which caused physical effects across the Middle East, Asia, and the United States.

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Biography

David E. Sanger is national security correspondent for the New York Times and bestselling author of The Inheritance and Confront and Conceal. He has been a member of three teams that won the Pulitzer Prize, including in 2017 for international reporting. A regular contributor to CNN, he also teaches national security policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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