Ghost Fleet: Welcome to the World of Post-Snowden Techno-Thrillers

If World War III were fought in cyberspace, what role would Silicon Valley play? This is just one of the questions explored in Peter Singer’s and August Cole’s new book, <em>Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War</em>.

In World War II, the United States mobilized its industrial base to fight on land, at sea and in the air. If World War III were fought in cyberspace, at least in part, what role would Silicon Valley play? This is just one of the questions explored in Peter Singer’s and August Cole’s new book, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

In the 1980s, Tom Clancy invented the genre of techno-thrillers, writing about secret weapons, like stealth aircraft, long before they were revealed by the Pentagon. But with the Cold War long over, Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and August Cole, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, reimagine the world of warfare in the age hackers and drones, writing what could be called the first “Post-Snowden” techno-thriller. The Intercept’s National Security Editor, Sharon Weinberger, recently spoke with the two writers about their vision of future war. The interview has been edited for clarity.

The Intercept: Both of you are better known for your nonfiction work on national security. What motivated the move to fiction?

Singer: Fiction for us was a way not only to explore certain what-ifs, but also play out certain pathways, touch certain human themes, and also, frankly, produce a book that we hope is not just informative, but also highly entertaining.

In terms of the what-ifs, you can play with everything, from the big what-ifs — what if the great powers went to war — to what-ifs like, what would be the role of Silicon Valley? What have been the consequences of the Snowden affair in terms of conflict? What does actual cyberwarfare look like?

In terms of human themes, we could hit everything from the issues of choice versus destiny, to playing with certain social changes within the military.

In terms of entertainment, we just wanted to scratch an itch. We’re both authors who work in a nonfiction field, but we love books that range from the old Tom Clancy to World War Z and Game of Thrones.

The Intercept: Let’s start with the basics. What does the future look like? How does World War III start or potentially start?

Cole: The world that we built involves taking some big assumptions and turning them on their head. One of the first is that the communist party will continue to run China. We posited a different kind of regime emergence. We see things like the importance of energy in great power politics — those are very clear lines to today’s world — but we also changed other aspects of them, such that the U.S. becomes an energy superpower, which has downstream implications to the energy industry and in the foreign policy realm.

Singer: The process of researching also shaped the choices of the characters, the villains and the heroes. We went around meeting with the real-world people who might fight in such a war. Some of them are the expected, like U.S. Navy destroyer captains, fighter pilots, Chinese generals, but also the unexpected, the new players in 21st-century life who will probably play in conflict, too. These range from Silicon Valley venture capitalists to private military contractors to anonymous hackers.

That also allowed us to play with the fact that real-world people are not cardboard; they bring lots of different things into the story, which, of course, they do in reality.

For example, the cyber-conflict side of looking at who the players might be — it might be expected players, like military Cyber Command, but you have this wide range of non-state actors out there, from the university-affiliated hacker militia in China to hacktivist groups. I have serious doubt they would just sit aside when a conflict is playing out on this arena. Yet what was fascinating is when we spoke with people. For example, at Cyber Command, they weren’t even thinking about this eventuality.

The Intercept: How did the Snowden revelations inform your thinking about the future?

Singer: In many ways, this is a book that is fiction, but backed by 400 endnotes and written in a post-Snowden world. The impact of it I saw play out in two ways. The first is that there are a wide variety of techniques the NSA was doing against others — as revealed by Snowden — that could be done back against us, or at least other parts of government and business. We are able, in fiction, to play with that scenario. For example, one of the things Snowden revealed the NSA doing was what was jokingly called “the Bigfoot of hacking.” It was using radio waves to cross an air gap. It had long been suspected, and through the documents it was revealed.

Not to give too much of the book away — spoiler alert — but that is a means used against another government agency as a hack at the start.

The second way this is post-Snowden is that it plays with certain changes in American industry, and maybe the mentality today. If there was another great war, it’s not 1941 anymore, so the parts of the American economy that would be key to being mobilized wouldn’t be Detroit; it would be places like Silicon Valley. But, of course, it’s also a post-Snowden world, and Silicon Valley has very different feelings about government [now], so we play with that, too.

The Intercept: I remember, back in the day, there were allegations that Tom Clancy had been receiving classified leaks. Any chance you would be accused of that?

Singer: That’s the amazing thing about Clancy, if you go back to that period. In Red Storm Rising, he’s writing about a stealth plane two years before the Air Force admits it has a stealth plane. It’s pretty remarkable. But we document everything — in one way to prove that this science fiction-seeming thing is real, but also to protect us from being accused of revealing classified information.

The Intercept: The book has real-world story about a Navy blimp hanger. Why is that story significant?

Singer: It’s a remarkable story. Most people in Silicon Valley don’t even know that Silicon Valley started out as a Navy blimp base — Navy aircraft carrier blimp program.

That’s the reality of it. Most people don’t know about the military origins of Silicon Valley, and if they do, they think it has something to do with space or the Cold War. But really it dates back to the last interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, even to the origin of the name of the town Sunnyvale.

So it’s just a fascinating story, but it also allows us to jump off into this exploration of the weird, but also conflicted history of Silicon Valley with the military. That’s something that starts back in the 1920s, continues through the Cold War to today, and will continue into the 2020s.

I think that is one of the more interesting what-ifs, all the more so because you have this Pentagon attempt, as a recent report put it, “to woo, to court, Silicon Valley.” And it’s not clear that that courtship, to use a 19th-century word, really is going to work out all that well for the 21st-century mentality that Silicon Valley has.

Cole: I think it’s also an interesting corollary to the military importance of the Bay Area. We admit that during World War II, San Francisco was very much indeed a Navy town. That legacy is often lost beneath the digital gloss that exists today. Having lived a lot of my life in San Francisco, and being from the West Coast originally, it’s something I’m familiar with, that there is this real legacy to the second World War that in a kind of quest for newness we forget. But fiction can help make people consider that again and ask that question: what the role might be for these epicenters of innovation in wartime.

The InterceptLet’s talk about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military’s far-out research and development arm. You take DARPA’s brain-machine interface work, which has been going on, actually, in one form or another for several decades, and draw out some of the darker implications, which is just fascinating. Both from a technological and a policy perspective, is that sort of work something that should worry us?

Singer: Every single technology, whether it’s a stone, a drone or the Internet, has been used for both good and bad. The technology that is working on brain-machine interface is being developed for some very positive roles, like helping the paralyzed to move and operate objects with their mind, like a computer. It’s making its way over into video gaming to program the systems-based neurotechnology for emerging therapies, which is basically about using the brain-machine interface technology to aid soldiers dealing with PTSD. The potential manipulation of emotion and memories is an original positive goal, but you can very quickly see how these kinds of technologies might be used and abused, both by our own government and industry, but also, as every technology, they will get out there and others will use and abuse them.

We explore that and it’s one of the themes that I think connects to bigger science fiction mediums of how technology can end up working out in ways you might not expect because it’s always being used by humans. And it also connects to some bigger, fun, memorable science fiction themes of the very meaning of identity, thought, memory.

The interrogation scene where the brain-machine interface is used, for me, is the scariest scene of a book about World War III. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it, but to me, it was by far the scariest, creepiest scene. But that is the reality when you think about some of these technologies that are both wonderful, but also potentially horrifying.

The InterceptThe National Security Agency: How do they figure in?

Cole: The book really highlights the role unexpected actors will have in being decisive. That’s why we really do need to think through how we court Silicon Valley, to use the earlier words. We really understand the role an affiliated hacker group or unaffiliated hacker group might be, a sort of Internet-oriented outfit like Anonymous — that they may be the ones who have a decisive role in the future of a conflict like this. The organizations that are focused on defending, protecting and attacking — the conventional needs maybe outstripped by the progress of technology, but also our adversaries on innovation.

Singer:  One of the other issues that is very real is the long-term consequences of the NSA-Snowden affair in terms of the very real anger that’s there among the tech community. Not just in terms of the back doors and feeling taken advantage of, but also the very real monetary cost that these companies have been hit with as a consequence of this — cost that’s not measured in thousands or millions of dollars, but billions of dollars of lost revenue. That’s a legacy that is going to be there for awhile.

The other issue — a larger one that connects to the surveillance debate, but also to geopolitics as a whole — is how we’ve been consumed by certain threats, both real and perceived, that have shifted how our intelligence community operates.

Another way of putting it is that our intelligence community — and our military — has gotten very good at both collecting wide amounts of information, but also going after single individual targets, i.e. suspected terrorist leaders and the like. And they’ve become, as some of the media reports have put it, highly effective killing machines. We could have a debate whether that’s right or wrong or whatever, but the point is that that’s shaped the intelligence community. But it also raises questions of whether this is going to be effective in the different kinds of conflicts that are potentially out there.

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