From the author of Black Hawk Down, a different sort of blood-and-thunder heroism narrative, out on the frontiers of cybercrime.
Journalist Bowden (The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL, 2008, etc.) enthusiastically explains that world commerce faces serious threats from malware, especially “botnets,” networked computers with a customized hidden infection that can be triggered by the malware programmer for any number of vicious effects. The largest such threat to date became known as Conficker when it surfaced abruptly in 2008. Much of Bowden’s narrative documents the work of a disparate, volunteer group of early Internet pioneers, ex-hackers and driven cyber-security professionals who came together, mostly online, to form the Conficker Working Group or (its preferred name) The Cabal. Initially, the group felt confident in their collective, improvised efforts to minimize the worm’s ability to infect individual computers and form a botnet; they were thus increasingly alarmed when Conficker was twice upgraded in sophistication by its mysterious programmers. Worse, their attempts to alert federal authorities were met with comical paranoia and ineptitude. Since Conficker functioned by randomly infecting large quantities of domain names, it was particularly difficult to counteract; yet, after much tension, the activation date for the botnet came and went to no apparent effect. Bowden notes that “the prospect of nothing happening...had actually become the prevailing theory of The Cabal itself." Still, Cabal members and Bowden both insist that the danger was not overstated. The author concludes that Conficker proves that “carefully tailored targeted attacks” are the wave of the future, using as an example the Stuxnet worm that attacked Iranian nuclear-production facilities. Bowden is a sharp, funny writer who can convey a complex narrative in crisp terms, but due to the subject matter, this remains an airy and less-engaging book than his best-known works.
A brief, punchy reminder of our high-tech vulnerabilities.