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How a teenage hacker might start World War III

An excerpt from 'Ghost Fleet,' a new novel by Peter W. Singer and August Cole, that envisions what a future global cyberconflict might look like. 

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Illustration from the forthcoming novel, Ghost Fleet.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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The following is an excerpt provided to Passcode from "Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War," by Peter W. Singer and August Cole. While fiction, the scenario is drawn from real world research, including on university-affiliated cyber militias. For instance, China's secretive military hacking Unit 61398 – from which five officers were indicted by the US government for cyberespionage – reportedly recruited computer science grad students out of Zhejiang University. 

A thin teenage girl stood behind a workstation, faintly glowing metallic smart-rings on her fingers, one worn above each joint. Her expression was blank, her eyes hidden behind a matte-black visor. Rows of similar workstations lined the converted lecture hall. Behind each stood a young engineering student, every one a member of the 234th Information Brigade – Jiao Tong, a subunit of the Third Army Cyber-Militia.

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On the arena floor, two Directorate officers watched the workers. From their vantage point, the darkened arena seemed to be lit by thousands of fireflies as the students’ hands wove faint neon-green tracks through the air.

Jiao Tong University had been formed in 1896 by Sheng Xuanhuai, an official working for the Guangxu emperor. The school was one of the original pillars of the Self-Strengthening Movement, which advocated using Western technology to save the country from destitution. Over the following decades, the school grew to become China’s most prestigious engineering university, nicknamed the Eastern MIT.

Hu Fang hated that moniker, which made it seem as if her school were only a weak copy of an American original. Today, her generation would show that times had changed.

The first university cyber-militias had been formed after the 2001 Hainan Island incident. A Chinese fighter pilot had veered too close to an American navy surveillance plane, and the two planes crashed in midair. The smaller Chinese plane spun to the earth and its hot-dogging pilot was killed, while the American plane had to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield on Hainan. As each side angrily accused the other of causing the collision, the Communist Party encouraged computer-savvy Chinese citizens to deface American websites to show their collective displeasure. Young Chinese teens were organized online by the thousands and gleefully joined in the cyber-vandalism campaign, targeting the homepage of everything from the White House to a public library in Minnesota. After the crisis, the hacker militias became crucial hubs of espionage, stealing online secrets that ranged from jet-fighter designs to soft-drink companies’ negotiating strategies.

That had all taken place before Hu Fang was born. She’d grown up sick from the smog; a hacking cough kept her from playing outside with the other kids. What Hu thought was a curse became a blessing: her father, a professor of computer science in Beijing, had started her out writing code at age three, mostly as a way to keep her busy inside their cramped apartment. Hu had been inducted into the 234th after she’d won a software-writing competition at the age of eleven.

Officially, militia service fulfilled the Directorate’s universal military service requirement, but Hu would have volunteered anyway. She got to play with the latest technology, and the missions the officers gave her were usually fun. One day it might be hacking into a dissident’s smartphone, and another day it might entail tangling with the IT security at a Korean car designer. The Americans, though, were the best to toy with – so confident of their defenses. If you pwned them — the word taken from the Americans’ own lingo for seizing digital control – the officers of the 234th noticed you. She’d done well enough that the apartment she and her father lived in now was much bigger than any of her father’s colleagues’.

But it was not the reward that mattered to Hu; rather, it was escaping the physical limitations that had once defined her life. When linked in, Hu felt like she was literally flying. Indeed, her gear worked on the same principles as the fly-by-wire controls on China’s J-20 fighter. The powerful computers she drew on created a three-dimensional world that represented the global communications networks that were her battlegrounds. She was among the few people who could boast that they had truly “seen” the Internet.

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Hu had made her mark by hacking phones belonging to civilian employees in the Pentagon. Despite the restrictions on employees bringing devices into the building, a few did so every day. Her technique involved co-opting a phone’s camera and other onboard sensors to remotely re-create the owner’s physical and electronic environment. This mosaic of pictures, sounds, and electromagnetic signals helped the Directorate produce an almost perfect 3-D virtual rendition of the Pentagon’s interior and its networks.

She noticed with pleasure her pump kicking in. Access to the latest in medical technologies was another perk of the unit. The tiny pump, implanted beneath the skin near her navel, dumped a cocktail of methylphenidate and other stimulants into her circulatory system.

Originally designed for children with attention deficit disorder, the mix produced a combination of focus and euphoria. For well over a decade, kids in America had popped “prep” pills to tackle tests and homework, which Hu thought was laughable. It was another sign of America’s weakness, kids using this kind of power just to make it through schoolwork. Hu’s pump enabled her to do something truly important.

When she’d been told a week ago to prepare for a larger operation than they’d ever tried, she hacked the pump’s operating system. It was a risk, but it paid off. She raised the dose level by 200 percent. No more steady-state awareness. Now it was like falling off a skyscraper and discovering you could fly right before you hit the ground.

Hu moved her hands like a conductor, gently arcing her arms in elliptical gestures, almost swanlike. The movement of each joint of every finger communicated a command via the gyroscopes inside the smart-ring; one typed out code on an invisible keyboard while another acted as a computer mouse, clicking open network connections. Multiple different points, clicks, and typing actions, all at once. To the officers watching below, it looked like an intricate ballet crossed with a tickling match.

 

The young hacker focused on her attack, navigating the malware packet through the DIA networks while fighting back the desire to brush a bead of sweat off her nose with her gloved hands. The Pentagon’s autonomous network defenses, sensing the slight anomalies of her network streams, tried to identify and contain her attack. But this was where the integration of woman and machine triumphed above mere “big data.” Hu was already two steps ahead, building system components and then tearing them down before the data could be integrated enough for the DIA computers to see them as threats. Her left arm coiled and sprung, her fingers outstretched. Then the right did the same, this time a misdirect, steering the defense code to shut down further external access, essentially tricking the programs into focusing on locking the doors of a burning house, but leaving a small ember on the outside for them to stamp on, so they’d think the fire was out.

Having gained access, she set about accomplishing the heart of her mission. Hu’s hands punched high, then her fingers flicked. She began inserting code that would randomize signals from the Americans’ Global Positioning System satellite constellation. Some GPS signals would be off by just two meters. Others would be off by two hundred kilometers.

Of course, shutting it all down would be easy. But she could swing that hammer later; today was all about sowing doubt and spreading confusion. 

PETER WARREN SINGER, strategist at New America think tank in Washington, is a New York Times best-selling author whose nonfiction books pioneered the study of new fields like private militaries, warlords, drones, and cyberwar. Previously, he was Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Singer works as a consultant for the US Department of Defense and FBI and was named by the President to the Transformation Advisory Group, a commission designed to help the US military visualize and plan for the future. 

AUGUST COLE is a writer, analyst, and consultant, and a former defense industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He is an Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow, focusing on using narrative fiction to explore the future of warfare.