On the Record

The Truth About Cybercrime

Rita J. King and Peter W. Singer

Editor’s note: In an
interview with Rita J. King of Science House
, Peter W. Singer discusses the future battlefield, from new technologies and robotics to increasingly important domains, like cyber. He explains that there is no silver bullet for future online conflict, but that it must instead be managed by all global network users. Read the interview below, with an introduction by Rita King.

When it comes to cybercrime, it’s easy to to become “highly technical or get hysterical, turning the volume up to 11 Spinal Tap style and trying to scare with fake or fictional incidents.” Instead, in his book that launches today, brilliant writer and thinker P.W. Singer sticks to true stories and facts that illuminate the reality of modern life. If you think it’s hard to spot a guerrilla combatant or a tiny enemy robot, now imagine what it takes to identify a silent, invisible cybercrime.

P.W. Singer and I both appeared in this documentary, Robot Wars, but we met years earlier. He’s one of the most important thinkers of our time, and the interview that follows is just a taste. For more, get a copy of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar.

Rita J. King: When did you become interested in war?

Peter W. Singer: I grew up in a family with long military history, so as a young kid, I was one of those 6-year-olds who if you gave me a stick, it would quickly become either a light saber to fight Darth Vader or a tommy gun to stop the Nazis from taking over the neighborhood. As John Keegan wrote in his masterful book 6 Armies at Normandy, that’s not something to be proud of, but that is the truth of it. Today, obviously I understand the impact and import of this domain, which is in fact why I wrote on it, as there is no issue more important, of greater consequence for our society.

King: Your last book, Wired for War, was a shocking exposé about the reality of modern warfare but also about what it means to be human in relation to conflict. Can you tell us what you learned and how this informed your thinking for your new book?

Singer: On the substance side, it explored how new technologies can be incredibly disruptive, providing both capabilities but also political, business, legal, moral questions that we didn’t imagine we’d have a generation ago. It also focused on how it was not the software or hardware that would matter the most in the end, but the wetware, the humans and the way they saw the world and interacted from behind those machines. Both hold true for cyber, in terms of amazing capabilities and questions that have played out over just a generation (in the book, I compare my first use of a computer to the issues today, for better and for worse) and the key role of people.

But perhaps the biggest lesson was on the writing craft side. As the great Elmore Leonard advised fiction writers, the best thing you can do is “Skip the boring parts.” The same holds true for nonfiction and that’s what I tried to do in both books, focus on what’s important, but in an interesting manner.

King: In some ways robots are easier to understand, or at least visualize, because they are tangible. At least, presently, they are, until they get so small that we won’t know how to spot them. Cyberwar is a different story. How do you make this concept tangible for readers?

Singer: Two ways. The first is organizationally. The middle third of the book focuses on this directly, by being all about “why does this matter?” (the first third is “how does this all work?” and the last third is “what can we do?”) . The second is approach. We wanted to avoid what too many have done in this space and either stay highly technical or get hysterical, turning the volume up to 11 Spinal Tap style and trying to scare with fake or fictional incidents. Instead focus on the real stories and real people, and begin every chapter with something that actually happened. Fortunately, these also aid the interesting part, from the truth of cybercrime or Stuxnet to the time that Pakistan kidnapped all the world’s cute cat videos.

King: It seems like we’re headed toward a battlefield of nebulous enemies, hazy battle goals, and an increasingly interconnected future in which cyberwar’s consequences will be far more widespread than anyone can conceptualize easily at this point. How can we prepare for this?

Singer: The future space of cyberwar will be much like the Internet itself, involving multiple actors from both states and non state all the way down to individuals and mostly playing out on civilian-owned and operated networks. It will be messy but important. The key is to understand that as long as we use the Internet, there will be cybersecurity and cyberwar issues. It’s not about “solving” them with some silver bullet solution, but rather about managing them. That is true for national governments, businesses, organization, and even you and I in our role as both netizens and citizens.