With daily reports of severe breaches in national cybersecurity and devastating cyber-attacks on government infrastructure, many journalists are in dire need of a manual to enlighten their writing on the subject. Here are my ten(rather cynical) tips to make your cyberwarfare story succeed.
1. You need a catchy title. It pays to cannibalize on some recent tragic event from the real world; adding "cyber" to its name would usually trigger all the right associations. Studies show that references to "digital Pearl Harbor","cyber-Katrina", and "electronic 9/11" are most effective, particularly for stories involving electricity grids or dams. Never make any explicit attempts to explain the bizarre choice of your title– you need to leave enough ambiguity out there for your readers to "connect the dots" themselves. This is a win-win: readers love solving important cyberspy puzzles - and you could get away without doing any analysis of your own. Quoting real facts would spoil the puzzle-solving experience; plus, the fewer facts you quote, the harder it would be to debunk your story!
2. Begin the story in Estonia, with a reference to its 2007 attacks; make sure to play up the “E-stonia” tune and how the entire country was under online siege for a month (never mention that rioting in the Estonian streets was much more devastating and that the actual online siege lasted for twenty minutes at best). Setting the story in Estonia would also help to play up the Soviet threat that never really left the country. Blame NATO's impotence, praise Skype's genius, quote non-existent local Web entrepreneurs who lost all their savings in the 2007cyber-attacks.
3. Drop references to the evil Chinese hackers in every paragraph (in every sentence, if it's an article about GhostNet) . Don't forget to mention that cyberwarfare was first explained by Sun Tzu and has been part of the Chinese military tradition since the Shang dynasty. Make unverifiable claims about the tacit support that the Chinese government has offered to its nationalist hackers. Find and quote a Chinese blogger who can't log-in to his blog; quote from a recent Pentagon review of China's military power to explain why this may all be part of China's grand cyberwarfare strategy.
4. Mention the cyber-pranks of as many Kremlin-affiliated youth movements as you can, all the better if they are obscure or only exist on paper. Anyone whose last name ends in "-ov" or "-ev" qualifies as a Kremlin bigwig; use their every sneeze as an extremely accurate articulation of Kremlin's own thinking on cyberwarfare. Keep referencing shady Russian outlets like the Russian Business Network; the fact that they have not been in the news in 2007 only proves they are doing a great job in the cyber-underground.
5. Find and quote industry experts with the biggest possible conflicts of interest – preferably those who make their living thanks to the public paranoia about cybersecurity. Make sure you give them enough space to quote their latest anti-virus solutions and consulting services. Since nobody important would talk to you on the record anyway, nobody expects your quotes to add any value to the article. Remember: it's all about the metaphors. Ideally, find "unbiased" experts who have never been to Estonia or Georgia, don't know the language, have gathered no data of their own, but who think that cyberwar is going to destroy us all (unless their firm is selected to help us save us from the evil hackers).
6. If you don't have any new facts to warrant yet another story on the subject, go and recycle old facts, quotes, and official statements; you are allowed to go back as early as 1997. In the worst case, give a call to some disgruntled dissident group with an ax to grind and ask if they feel threatened by the Chinese hackers (bonus points if you manage to find someone scared of Burma's junta); if they aren't, make sure to infect them with Conficker and call back shortly. Otherwise, call BBC to learn how to rent a botnet, pay for it with your corporate credit card, and launch a full-blown attack on some high-profile site, preferably the one that belongs to the dissident group you spoke to. Document your every step.
8. If you are still having trouble working the Chinese or the Russian governments into your story, why not throw in some geopolitical kerfuffle that involves a country located in between? Not only would it implicate both governments, it would also make cyberspace seem relevant to geopolitics. I suggest you settle on Kyrgyzstan, as it would also help to make a connection to the US military bases; there is no better story than having Russian and Chinese hackers oust the US from Kyrgyzstan via cyber-attacks. Bonus points for mentioning Azerbaijan and the importance of cyberwarfare to the politics of the Caspian oil; in the worst case, Kazakhstan would do as well. Never mention any connectivity statistics for the countries you are writing about: you don't want readers to start doubting that someone might be interested in launching a cyberwar on countries that couldn't care less about the Internet.
9. Anything involving cyberwar between Israel and Palestine is fair game, no matter how old and how unrelated to cyberwarfare. Don't forget to mention "e-Palestine" as an example of a nation in cyber-exile; throw in occasional references to Israeli Web start-ups. Eventually, blame everything on the growing appreciation of cyberspace by Iran's mullahs or at least local branch of Hamas (also –Hezbollah). The big prize is alluding to a secretive summer camp on cyberwarfare, where hackers from Russia, China, Iran, and Israel get together to share tricks.
10. Make sure to mention that NSA,CIA, and DIA are all involved in the case, but they cannot comment. Play up the inter-agency squabble and mention that the military types are angry with the spies– and vice versa. Mention that the Pentagon has already been attacked a gazillion times; blame everything on Rumsfeld and his penchant for network-centric warfare (no need to explain it; networks=attacks, for most readers anyway).Include a silly but long quote from a government insider, preferably someone who has been out of the Pentagon or the CIA for twenty years and has never seen a computer. Now is the good time to end the piece with a reference to a bipartisan report on cybersecurity from a Washington think-tank, predict Obama's failure to rule in cyberspace,and mention that Al-Queada recruits online. Bingo!
Mail it in – and wait to hear from the Pulitzer committee. I bet half of your readers would never want to use a computer again.
Photo by KevinDooley/Flickr