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Review: Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage

Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital EspionageCyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage by Gordon Corera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Cyberspies” is exhaustive, but in the way that climbing a mountain is exhaustive, where the reward is worth the effort. It’s comprehensive, leaving you with the sense of no stone having been left unturned. Most importantly, however, it is neutral. By the end of the book, I couldn’t suss out author Gordon Corera’s allegiances on the privacy vs. security debate. Does he think Snowden is a traitor or a hero? Are groups like the NSA doing necessary work or have they become the latest incarnation of the Stasi?

Based on the book alone, it’s impossible to say. And for an issue as contentious as cyber-security, surveillance, spying, and information, it’s a rare treasure to not have politics get in the way of the presentation of the facts. Corera’s work offers up the information in a careful, thoughtful way, and invites us to draw our own conclusions. What does digital privacy mean to our lives? What are we willing to trade for it?

Another interesting aspect of Corera’s work is that we get a British perspective on things, which is a refreshing change of pace. If you read about the history of computers for long enough, eventually you start to the see the patterns and the same names over and over. And while Americans did, indeed, create the internet as we know it today, the history of computers and cyber-security isn’t an American-only topic. Corera’s perspective, both informed and directed by his identity as a Brit, means that this isn’t the same old story.

Even as he maintains authorial neutrality, he makes observations that don’t seem to occur to American authors in quite the same way. “Americans trust their corporations and mistrust their government,” he notes, “while for Brits, it’s the other way around.”

If you’re interested in the topic of cyber-security, espionage, or information privacy, this book is a strong recommendation. It might not be my first foray into the subject if you’re a novice; Corera assumes his readers have a baseline proficiency with computers even if he takes care not to overwhelm them with technical jargon. But if you’re just now starting to think about topics like cryptography and digital privacy, this might not be the best starting place. Add it to your list of books to come back to once you’re comfortable with the topic.

Regardless, Corera feels like an author to watch. His style is direct and pleasantly journalistic, which feels increasingly rare in an era that seems to treat information and entertainment as synonyms. That doesn’t mean that this is a boring book in the slightest, but it feels pleasantly old-fashioned in its aims, rather like the Cold War-era spies that Corera writes about. And like those old time-y methods like invisible ink and typewriters, this writing style might just be exactly what we need in today’s world.

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