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THE HACKER AND THE STATE: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics by Ben Buchanan book review

  • Written by  Angus Parker
  • Published in Books
THE HACKER AND THE STATE: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics by Ben Buchanan book review
27 May
2020
by Ben Buchanan • Harvard University Press • £22.95 (hardback)

“Today one of the primary ways governments shape geopolitics is by hacking other countries”. This is perhaps a bold statement but the plethora of examples recounted in this book illustrates how devastating cyber-attacks, affecting both the public and private spheres, have begun to animate a contemporary digital battleground between states. Through an examination of espionage, attack and destabilisation, Ben Buchanan demonstrates how this field has evolved from espionage operations and a field dominated by the United States to cyber-attacks that have broader implications for economies and societies – increasingly becoming “the new normal of geopolitics”.

However, there is nuance to Buchanan’s argument. As he notes, the “chaotic arena of cyber operations…is not what scholars and military planners had long imagined”. Unlike the interpretation that envisions cyber-attacks as the digital equivalent of nuclear warfare, in being devastating but rare, Buchanan argues that cyber operations have instead become a persistent, common and pervasive tool of statecraft – “more subtle than policy makers imagined, yet with impacts that are world changing”.

A key distinction is between ‘signalling’ and ‘shaping’. During the Cold War, the emphasis was on signalling but cyber-attacks, conversely, are versatile tools for shaping geopolitics rooted in espionage, sabotage, and destabilisation. Cyber operations can rarely offer clear and calibrated means of signalling and coercion. However, their apparent weakness as a means of geopolitical signalling is more than counterbalanced by their versatility as a tool for geopolitical shaping as evidenced by examples such as the group known as the Shadow Brokers who leaked NSA files and espionage techniques from 2015 to 2018.

Moreover, cyber operations will continue to become more powerful, scalable and widespread – disrupting the traditional grasp that the Five Eyes previously had over the digital realm. As Buchanan states, “the harm that hackers can do is expanding faster than the deterrence or defences against them”. Although the book perhaps does not concentrate enough on the explicit political implications of each attack, it does provide an excellent primer for understanding how cyber operations have become an indelible part of global relations and ably demonstrates how hacking has “earned its place in the playbook of statecraft”.

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