NYT national security reporter warns Steamboat audience of sneaky cyber attacks

David Sanger

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from The New York Times spoke to a Steamboat Springs audience about his topics of expertise: cyber warfare and national security.

David E. Sanger started his policy speech on “Cyber Conflict” with a nod to one of President Trump’s anti-media phrases, “The Failing New York Times.”

“On occasion, we’ve reminded him that what’s kept us from failing has been, well, him,” Sanger said, in one of the few times the audience laughed during Monday’s Seminars at Steamboat event at Strings Music Pavilion.

His official topic for the evening was “The Perfect Weapon: How Cyber Conflict is Changing How Nations Compete and Conflict.”

There was little amusing as Sanger talked about the dangers of cyber conflict between countries, which started with the World Wide Web back in the early ’90s.

“We had this concept that the internet would be a great force of democratization … the Communist party wouldn’t survive the spread of information … that it would be very hard for governments to maintain a monopoly on power and information,” Sanger said. “But we’ve had a very different lesson in recent years.”

Sanger said the country has been fixated for the past several years on stopping the “Cyber Pearl Harbor.”

“That actually has blinded us to much more subtle uses of cyber,” he said. “We’re in a constant low-level cyber conflict … dialing up and dialing down to stay just below the threshold of war.”

Sanger reminded the audience how the Chinese got into the Office of Personnel Management and accessed 22 million people’s government files. He also spoke about how the Russians infiltrated the State Department and the White House’s unclassified email systems during Obama’s term.

“It took two weeks for the NSA to battle the Russians and get them out” of the White House, Sanger said.

Sanger said the Russians probably did it just to show they could get in when they wanted but that actual manipulation of data could be dangerous.

“Suppose somebody got into the military’s medical records database and managed to change the blood types of everyone who’s signed up in the military? Imagine you got into the command and control system of our nuclear arsenal and changed the target? Imagine you got into the control system of your new fancy autonomous vehicle, and when you went to go the supermarket, you went over a cliff?” Sanger pointed out.

Cyber attacks like these would also serve to inflict psychological damage, Sanger said.

“No one will trust the system,” he added.

But one of the biggest cyber attacks was implemented by America and Israel against Iran in 2010.

Sanger calls it one of the “original sins” where computer code was used against another country. The computer code destroyed Iran’s uranium centrifuges, not by bombing, but by speeding up and slowing down the centrifuges, making them explode, Sanger said.

He also said the computer code was eventually leaked by an unknown person and used in devious acts against countries and even private companies.

“Elements of that code have been cut up, repurposed and shot back at us,” Sanger said.

Sanger’s new book, “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age,” details much of the shenanigans going on between countries and private companies.

While Sanger didn’t seem worried about the U.S. voting system, which consists of 50 different systems, he did say the fact that the Russians were able to peruse the Democratic National Committee’s server for nine months was shocking.

“But if you are Putin, you think to yourself, ‘Those Americans are not defending the White House or State Department, why would they ever care about the Democratic National Committee?’” Sanger said.

“We’re the most vulnerable nation on earth,” Sanger continued. “We’re connected to everything, as are many of our allies.”

While Sanger seemed perturbed that the current NSA Director John Bolton eliminated the White House’s cyber coordinator position, he left the audience with a scrap of hope.

“Americans dominated the internet, invented the internet,” Sanger said. “We ought to be able to figure out how to control it.”

Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today

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