Spookerism (noun): a manipulated meaning that allows you to fib without lying
Spookerisms were made popular by the Spook Brothers Clapper and Alexander, a famous 21st century Music Hall Double Act. Spookerisms are a major tool in the disinformation and misinformation armoury of the modern intelligence agent: a method of providing misleading information without telling an untruth.
The thing is, the NSA doesn’t tell lies — at least not within the spookerist frame of reference. So when it says that it was aware of a BIOS-attacking virus, and allows us to believe it comes from China, and that it worked with manufacturers to nullify the threat; and that without intervention this virus had the potential to take out the US economy, it isn’t lying: it is indulging in a spookerism.
This is a transcript from the latest CBS 60 Minutes programme. John Miller is the CBS interviewer (an ex-NSA man). Debora Plunkett is the NSA Information Assurance Director
[voice over]: One they did see coming was called the BIOS Plot. It could have been catastrophic for the United States. While the NSA would not name the country behind it, cyber security experts briefed on the operation told us it was China. Debora Plunkett directs cyber defense for the NSA and for the first time, discusses the agency’s role in discovering the plot.
Debora Plunkett: One of our analysts actually saw that the nation state had the intention to develop and to deliver, to actually use this capability — to destroy computers.
John Miller: To destroy computers.
Debora Plunkett: To destroy computers… The attack would have been disguised as a request for a software update. If the user agreed, the virus would’ve infected the computer.
John Miller: So, this basically would have gone into the system that starts up the computer, runs the systems, tells it what to do.
Debora Plunkett: That’s right.
John Miller: — and basically turned it into a cinderblock.
Debora Plunkett: A brick.
John Miller: And after that, there wouldn’t be much you could do with that computer.
Debora Plunkett: That’s right. Think about the impact of that across the entire globe. It could literally take down the U.S. economy…
[voice over]: The NSA working with computer manufacturers was able to close this vulnerability, but they say there are other attacks occurring daily.
Given this information, the natural takeaway for most people is that China is or was intent on taking down the US economy with cyberweapons, and but for the astuteness of the NSA probably would have succeeded.
The NSA says nothing like that, but manipulates us into believing it. In fact, it says very little, and relies on us filling in the gaps for ourselves.
There have been many BIOS-attacking viruses. Consider Chernobyl (CIH). It was around in 1998. It was developed in Taiwan — which is a nation-state that likes to call itself China. After it was discovered, computer manufacturers worked on their systems to reduce the threat (and I’m willing to accept, or even bet, that the NSA had at least some tiny involvement in that). Unchecked; that is given free rein, it certainly did have the capability and potential to take down the world’s economy. Thing is, viruses do tend to get checked — there’s an entire security industry dedicated to it.
But when you stop and think about it, this new BIOS Plot described by the NSA to CBS — ably assisted by an ex-NSA journalist — could easily be a rather shaky but not false description of the Chernobyl virus.
And that’s what we call a spookerism.