The Economist’s review of Lucas Kello’s new book “The Virtual Weapon and International Order” | 26.08.2017

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The politics of cyberspace

Academia is still grappling with the problems that beset computers and networks

Academia is still grappling with the problems that beset computers and networks

The Virtual Weapon and International Order.  By Lucas Kello. Yale University Press; 319 pages; £25. To be published in America by Yale in September; $35.

THE woes of international-relations theorists do not usually elicit public sympathy. But “The Virtual Weapon and International Order”, Lucas Kello’s lucid and insightful book on the politics of cyberspace, does a good job of persuading the reader of the near-vacuum that prevails in academic work on the threats to people’s computers and networks.

New technologies, he argues, have upended conventional understanding of the way states deal with defence and deterrence. The threat is pervasive; a cyber-attack can hit anything from a missile-control system to a media website, with potentially profound consequences. Geography is irrelevant. Old thinking about defending a perimeter makes no sense when the adversary is probably already lurking in your networks. The simpler techniques may be used by all manner of adversaries: criminals and hooligans as well as spies and soldiers. These categories may overlap. Attributing an attack is more difficult.

The shift is much bigger than from past changes in military capability—the author highlights the use of submarines, powered flight, tanks, radar or nuclear weapons. Some academic colleagues still maintain that nothing new has really happened; technological change does not fundamentally alter the understanding of warfare. Mr Kello lambasts such sceptics on both practical and theoretical grounds.

His case studies include the crude but crippling attack on Estonia’s information systems in 2007, which was probably a Russian response to the moving of a Soviet-era war memorial. He also looks at the hack of Sony Pictures, probably by North Korea in response to the release of “The Interview”, a satirical film about the country’s leader, and the American-Israeli Stuxnet software-driven sabotage of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.

Such state-sponsored attacks stop short of full-scale war, but are too aggressive to count as normal peacetime behaviour. Another riddle for theorists is that attacks straddle the civilian-military divide. Mr Kello, an American-educated Argentine-Estonian who now works at Oxford University, coins the term “unpeace” to describe the ambiguous, persistent irritants and stunts of recent years. He also outlines an interesting notion of “punctuated deterrence” as a way of responding to such attacks. The means employed would include military and non-military means, with unpredictable timing. Such a prospect, he argues, would deter attacks more credibly than the threat of all-out “kinetic” (real-world) war. He is vague on the details: a serious book on cyber-deterrence would be welcomed by many.

Although he is not himself a computer scientist, Mr Kello displays an enviable grasp of the technical issues, as well as of the academic landscape. One of his targets is complacency. Another is overspecialisation: lawyers, military theorists, political scientists and technogeeks each see only their own side of the problem. A co-operative, all-round approach would mean a better framework for understanding the interaction between individuals and states in cyberspace.

Academic jousting is a spectator sport for most outsiders, but the dangers facing our computers and networks are not. Readers of all kinds will find Mr Kello’s book informative and thought-provoking.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline “Grasping the dangers”