Perlroth, Terminology, and Hyperbole

I finished reading “This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends” by Nicole Perlroth a few weeks ago but haven’t had time to write this blog, and likely another, based on specific aspects of the book. I have written two blogs on topics covered in the book after reading it already, but both written before completing the book.

Overall the book was an enjoyable read. It is clear that Perlroth covers the topic of zero-day exploits and the exploit market very well, based on a lot of research and interviews with key players. The book exposed some things that were new to me so I enjoyed some chapters very much. The book also gave me a sizable list of items to do further research on including several ideas for FOIA requests. Finally, I think the epilogue was especially well done and would serve as a great ~ 20 page primer on the topic and where the world is going in the realm of exploits and hacking campaigns. If you are interested in the topic I do recommend this book.

That said, this blog is about one issue I have with the content. Starting in the prologue and continuing throughout several chapters of the book, Perlroth uses language that is arguably one step past hyperbole, seemingly crossing the definition of “intensifier” and falling squarely into “extreme exaggeration“. This has been a problem for over twenty-five years in Information Security with one of our worst being “Cyber Pearl Harbor“, which is also used in this book. While such terms are dramatic and hook a reader they are counter-productive as they unfairly explain or refer to concepts that are not as serious or damaging as the terms used.

Equating two unrelated terms to explain one concept to an audience not familiar with it is common enough, and we all do it. But consider the definition on an analogy which is “a comparison of two otherwise unlike things based on resemblance of a particular aspect“. The key, I believe, is “resemblance of a particular aspect” which can really be interpreted differently. If I compare a rocket to an automobile to make a comparison about travel because they both can move and transport people, does that count? Sure, but it sucks as an analogy and doesn’t make the point very well. When that gets taken to an extreme, you have a logical fallacy known as a false analogy.

To me, that is where analogies or descriptions like “a Cyber Pearl Harbor” fall. Until a computer intrusion can routinely sink ships, destroy aircraft, kill over 2,300, and wound over 1,100 people in just over an hour, I don’t think that is an appropriate term to use. If such an event happens once, perhaps calling it “the Cyber Pearl Harbor” would be acceptable. Further, what part of the attack on Pearl Harbor resembles a computer attack? Until that can be answered, journalists and security professionals should endeavor to use more grounded analogies that can explain a concept without embellishing or incorrectly comparing something in the virtual computer domain to a kinetic real-world item or event. While Perlroth’s first use of this term was quoting “security experts”, she had the opportunity to temper that with a caveat or explanation, but did not.

Even calling exploits a “weapon” begins to push that boundary as most people think of a kinetic weapon like a knife or gun that has wounded or killed millions in the last 100 years. With that, here is a sampling of some of the analogies and terminology Perlroth used throughout her book to illustrate the problem. What is perhaps most unfortunate about this is that the book is well-written and did not need to do this to make it interesting. To me, it was actually a detraction and did not add to the topic.

  • xvi: Russian hackers made a blood sport of hacking anyone…
  • xvi: For five long years, they shelled Ukrainians with thousands of cyberattacks a day…
  • xviii: The very same Russian hackers that had been laying trapdoors and virtual explosives
  • xxi: .. is what happened when the NSA’s most powerful cyberweapons got into our adversary’s hands. So in March 2019 I went to Ukraine to survey the ruins for myself.
  • xxvi: If Snowden leaked the PowerPoint bullet points, the Shadow Brokers handed our enemies the actual bullets: the code
  • p8: In the process, “zero-day exploits” became the blood diamonds of the security trade.
  • P257: They were here to recruit, perhaps, or broker the latest and greatest in Argentine spy code.
  • p294: Russian hackers had been shelling Ukraine’s computer networks with cyberattacks, and the timing was ominous.
  • p295: And like those attacks, the KillDisk had a ticking time bomb.
  • p324: But nation-states could just as easily bolt digital bombs and data wipers onto the tools, detonate data, and take America’s government agencies, corporations, and critical infrastructure offline.
  • p334: Across the world, people started ripping their computers out of the wall.
  • p348: Nobody had even bothered to tell the mayor that the virus hitting his city had been traveling on a digital missile built by the nation’s premier intelligence agency.
  • p349: One assailant locked up its systems with ransomware; another detonated EternalBlue to steal data.
  • p381: It was Nakasone who played a critical role in leading Nitro Zeus, the U.S. operation to plant land mines in Iran’s grid.
  • p383: They – the hackers, the officials, the Ukrainians, the voices in the wilderness – had always warned me that a cyber-enabled cataclysmic boom would take us down.

One thing to note is that on rare occasion, Perlroth did temper such wording. One example can be found on page 49 where she says “Again, these weren’t weapons. They were gaping security holes that could be exploited to break into hardware and software, and the American taxpayer was being asked to bankroll the entire supply chain.” Unfortunately, this comes after several lines in the bullet points above and many more like it.

Similarly to using exaggerated terms for exploits and digital attacks, Perlroth does the same when describing hackers. While describing a complex world of zero-day exploits, brokering them, and the impact they can cause, she falls back on tired clichés to describe the people using these exploits. Here are a few examples:

  • xix: .. simply beyond that of any four-hundred-pound hacker working from his bed.
  • p22: .. he did not resemble the emaciated hackers and former intelligence types glued to their computer screens
  • p23: .. a little colorful for men who wore black T-shirts and preferred to work in windowless dungeons.
  • p23: .. their diet subsisted of sandwiches and Red Bull.
  • p28: Vendors didn’t want to deal with basement dwellers
  • p28: … pimply thirteen-year-olds in their parents’ basements
  • p28: … ponytailed coders from the web’s underbelly
  • p30: Hackers who barely made it out of their basements would get hammered…

If I used hyperbolic clichés to describe Nicole Perlroth, a New York Times reporter, I wonder how many journalists I would offend?