Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: “Breakpoint (2007)” by Richard Clarke

Executive Summary: If you like Michael Crichton stories like “Jurassic Park” and “State of Fear,” you will like this book. It is not a must-read for cyber security professionals, but it is an entertaining story that you can hand to your family members, friends and bosses to illustrate what could be done in cyber space by a well-resourced adversary. Along the way, you will learn a little about the ethical issues, pro and con, surrounding the Transhumanist Movement – the advocation of using performance enhancement technology to influence human evolution – and you will enjoy a rollercoaster of a ride as the heroes attempt to determine who the bad guys are and how to stop them. 

There is a lot to love in this novel. Richard Clark jams a boat-load of cutting edge cyber security ideas into this little Crichton-esque [1][2] political thriller. He wrote it in 2007 but set it in the near future of 2012 and when I say there is a boat-load of information, I am talking about yacht-sized, not dingy-sized. The bad guys in this novel execute most of the cyber fantasy attacks against the United States that any group of cyber security geeks (including myself) could conger up after a few beers sitting around a bar at the annual Blackhat [3] / DEFCON [4] conventions in Vegas (one of the settings in the book). Clarke gives us bombings of US beach head routers on both coasts that reduce inbound and outbound internet traffic to just 10%, buffer overflow attacks against a communications satellite that sends it reeling out to space, SCADA attacks that blow up a research institution with a live nuclear reactor and a well-coordinated SCADA attack that takes out all power west of the Mississippi. Of course, in the novel, US government leadership, specifically the Intelligence Community (IC), thinks the Chinese are behind everything and they put all of their efforts into proving it.

All of these “fantasy” attacks are quite possible in the real world and the cyber security community has been talking about them for at least the last decade. Some experts believe that the Chinese government might execute something similar to these attacks in an effort to dissuade the US government from coming down on the wrong side of the “Taiwan” issue [5]. Clarke would know. Before he retired from government service, he served three different Presidents as the Special Assistant to the President for Global Affairs, the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism and the Special Advisor to the President for Cyber Security [6]. The political theory behind these acts is something called Escalation Dominance [7]. It is the idea that China, or any government really, would launch some kind of attack against the US that would hurt the country in an effort to prove that they could launch a much larger attack that would really hurt if the US did something that China did not like. In the afterword to this novel, Clark said that it was easier to talk about these issues in a fictional form then it was to talk about them in dry, academic and political journals. I concur. They are much more exciting and frightening splashed across the fictional page.

The cyber ideas in this novel are not what the story is ultimately about however. They are just the means to an end. [SPOILER ALERT] It turns out that the bad guys are not the Chinese. The real bad guys are a group of people that are not too keen on something called the Transhumanist Movement: a philosophy that espouses using genomics, robotics, informatics, nanotech, and new-pharma to change humanity into a new species [8]. They are worried about the religious and moral implications of man being directly involved in deciding the next steps in human evolution and they have a billionaire benefactor who can fund their terrorist operations. His name is Will Gaudium. In the novel, Gaudium is one of the original Internet founding fathers and made his fortune with an internet startup. I believe though, that Clarke based Gaudium on a real world guy by the name of Bill Joy.

Bill Joy is really one of the Internet founding forefathers. He created vi, the original UNIX text editor [12]. He had a big hand in creating BSD UNIX [13], the precursor to LINUX and, for all intents and purposes, created the first working software implementing of the TCP-IP stack [13]. He went on to co-found Sun Microsystems; a company that built some of the most beautiful UNIX machines of the time [13]. And then, out of nowhere, he wrote an article for Wired Magazine decrying the Transhumanist Movement [9]. To have somebody of that stature, a legend really, come out against the advancements of science made the entire scientific community pause for a beat. Some were comparing his manifesto to Albert Einstein’s letter to President Eisenhower that argued against the use of nuclear weapons [13]. If somebody like Bill Joy says that we need to think a bit before we go forward with transhumanism, then maybe we better do it. I may be wrong, but the resemblance between the real-world Bill Joy and the fictional Will Gaudium is unmistakable.

Clarke’s story races across 10 days in March of 2012 as our heroes, Susan Connor – an agent for the Intelligence Analysis Center (IAC) – and Jim Foley – an ex-marine on loan to the IAC from the NYPD, try to out-think the US Intelligence Apparatus and Law Enforcement community and track down the real culprits behind the Internet attacks. Critics have taken Clarke to task for his wooden characters in the story, but I found that not to be true. I liked his portrayal of the misguided internet billionaire especially and I liked the way he portrays New York and Boston cops. And I really appreciated that he did not try to establish some sort of romantic relationship between Foley and Connor. Foley is a little flat as a character, but I am OK with that.

The bottom line here is that this is book is a fun political thriller that gets the cyber security stuff right. I recommend it.


Sources 

[1] Michael Crichton is probably best known for writing the novel, “Jurassic Park,” but during his lifetime, he wrote many near-future books that took a new technological idea into the near future to see what would happen. Books like “State of Fear,” “Prey,” “Timeline,” “Airframe,” and “Disclosure,” were some of my favorites. 


[2] “Michael Crichton: The Official Site,” Last Visited: 1 January 2013, 

[3] “blackhat USA 2103,” Last Visited: 1 January 2013,

[4] “DEFCON,” Last Visited: 1 January 2013, 
https://www.defcon.org/ 

[5] “China and Taiwan’s Running Dispute,” The Real Clear Politics Blog, 8 March 2007, Last Visited: 1 January 2013,

[6] “Bio: Richard A. Clarke,” Cyber War by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake, Last Visited: 1 January 2013,

[7] “Navigating the Taiwan Strait: Deterrence, Escalation Dominance, and US-China” by Robert Ross, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Fall of 2002, Last Visited: 1 January 2013, 
http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/250/navigating_the_taiwan_strait.html 

[8] “United Nations Envisions Transhumanist Future where Man is Obsolete,” by Aaron Dykes, Infowars.com, 10 June 2012, Last Visited: 1 January 2013, 

[9] “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” by Bill Joy, Wired Magazine, April 2000, Last Visited: 1 January 2013,
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html 

[10] “The Joy of Programming,” by Andy Ross, AndyRoss.net, Last Visited: 1 January 2013,
http://www.andyross.net/bill_joy.htm 

[11] “Bill Joy, ‘Outliers-The Story of Success’, ‘The Dream of a Lifetime’, and No MTS Charges?” Michigan Terminal Archive System, Last Visited: 1 January 2013, 

[12] “Bill Joy’s Greatest Gift to Man – the vi Editor,” by Ashlee Vance, the Register, 11 September 2003, Last Visited: 1 January 2013,

[13] “BSD UNIX: Power to the People, from the Code,” by Andrew Leonard, Salon Magazine, 16 May 2000, Last Visited: 1 January 2013,

[14] “Hope is a Lousy Defense,” by Spencer Reiss, Wired Magazine, 11 December 2004, Last Visited: 1 January 2013,
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.12/billjoy_pr.html

2 comments:

  1. I just finished read this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree that if you like Michael Crichton books like Prey (2002) and State of Fear (2004) you will enjoy this book. I also think that if you enjoyed this book that you would find those books, especially Prey (for you tech folks) a fun read. I found it interesting that Mr. Clarke borrowed or spoke to ideas from both of those earlier Crichton books. Prey serves as a cautionary tale about developments in science and technology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. In State of Fear the debate over global warming serves as the backdrop for the book. Crichton supplies a personal afterword in State of Fear (that I happen to agree with) and two appendices that link the fictional part of the book with real examples of his thesis. But I digress!
    Will the rich really have smart robot dogs that are attached to the internet? Can important government satellites really be hacked and sent into deep space? Will the military have armor suits that make humans strong enough to lift a small car and are attached to the internet to supply them with brainpower (and can be hacked)? Bill gates told me on the today show yesterday that 20 years from now I will talk to the walls (I have news for you Bill, I already do), and they will talk back. I tend to believe Bill. They showed a clip of Mr. Gates on the today show in 1992 saying that in 20 years we would corresponding by “electronic mail”. Wow!
    SCADA systems that can be hacked, that scares me!! The catastrophe that is our utility grids going down can be seen a few years back during the east coast black out and in events (not cyber) like super storm Sandy last fall. Is it possible that someone would actually use this as weapon against us?
    All of this is thought provoking, what I want to know is how possible is it? It is hard to believe that all of the things in this book are possible or plausible as the author talks about in his afterword. The idea that humans one day could just be manual labor and technology will think and act for us seems pretty far out there. How far will we actually take some of these ideas? The idea that technology will help humans live longer more productive lives doesn’t seem so bad in small steps. Maybe because we get used to them (see my electronic mail comment above) X-rays, MRI’s, the tests that are administered in the hospitals today grew from past technologies. Problem is who gets to decide who is eligible for a better life, through technology, and who is not and why? Although, if you think about it we are already there! Can this technology really be the next step in human evolution?
    Thanks for the recommendation!!

    Frank O'Hara

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  2. Thanks Frank. I think that many of these topics are on the edge of possible and not too far away either. The hacking stuff, that is all possible.

    Rick

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