The Invisible Digital War

Six years ago Huib Modderkolk began investigating the digital world. He gradually formed a picture of how systems built for free communication are exploited for espionage and manipulation, and unearthed secret operations by the Dutch, American and Russian intelligence services. His most important conclusion? We are vulnerable: computer systems control access to our most basic human needs.

Huib Modderkolk
Original title
Het is oorlog maar niemand die het ziet

Summer 2017: computer screens go blank in 150 countries. The British NHS is so affected that hospitals can only take in patients for the Casualty department. Ambulances are grounded. MRI scanners and blood refrigeration systems stop functioning. Computer screens turn on spontaneously and the words “Oops your important files are encrypted” appear.

Employees who desperately pull the plugs on their computers are too late. Restarting is pointless, the computers are locked. And now the attackers ask each victim to pay them 300 dollars. This is hijack software. Those who transfer the money get nothing in return.

A month later, an unknown virus strike on 27th June 2017 doesn’t just shut down Rotterdam harbour but also systems in France, India, Great Britain, Poland and Germany, before spreading to 60 further countries. Modderkolk’s research into this incident and the previous one lead him to the Ukraine, the apparent target of a Russian attack.

This is just one example of how digital disruption in the Netherlands is inextricably connected with the rest of the world. Security systems installed by companies and governments are globally sourced.

Israel, for example, is one of the cheapest producers. But internet security systems can also discreetly collect data. There are other weaknesses. Data storage companies can be based anywhere and fall outside of national jurisdiction — criminals can store illegally-gathered data undetected. And how infallible are the certificates obtained to ensure that internet users end up on the sites they believe they are accessing?

Based on the cases he has investigated, Modderkolk takes the reader on a tour of the corridors and back doors of the globalised digital world. He reconstructs for example the British-American espionage operation on Belgacom and reveals how the power relationships between countries enable intelligence services to share and withhold data from each other. The book looks at key players such as Edward Snowden, DigiNotar: the Dutch- based certification company, Russian hackers Cozy Bear and Evgeniy Bogachev ‘the Pablo Escobar of the digital era’, and provides insights into military hackers, spies, saboteurs, malware and trolls.

This is even better than John le Carré, because it’s true.

Matthijs van Nieuwkerk, TV presenter

In the old days, anyone wanting to understand the world read the bible. Anyone wanting to understand the world today should read this book.

Arjan Lubach, writer and TV presenter
Huib Modderkolk
Huib Modderkolk (b.1982) is an investigative journalist for the Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant. He used to be a frequent guest on the popular talkshow 'De Wereld Draait Door' where he explains the complexities of the digital world in simple terms.
Part ofNon-Fiction
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