Worm: The First Digital World War

Image of Worm: The First Digital World War
Release Date: 
September 27, 2011
Atlantic Monthly Press
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“. . . the rest of us should take Mark Bowden’s warnings with the utmost seriousness because of the growing threats to our wired world. And if you think Washington has the answers, it’s only because you haven’t asked the right questions.”

In Worm: The First Digital World War, Mark Bowden has an unusual problem for a doomsday scenario. Not only did we survive our first digital world war, but most of us never even noticed anything wrong. The Internet kept on ticking while everything we expect from our increasingly wired world—electronic banking and social networking—went right on humming. So dude, do we have, like, a real problem here?

Mark Bowden thinks that we were just lucky. The Conficker worm, which galvanized the computer security community from November 20, 2008 to April 1, 2009, simply didn’t do whatever evil its creators intended; thus we avoided an uncertain fate on what might have been our most memorable April Fool’s Day. Aside from the fact that the topic is anticlimactic—which is the author’s first, but not his only problem—Worm is nevertheless an important primer on digital age dangers.

He correctly argues that our ability to integrate computers into everyday life has far outstripped our understanding of their workings, much less how to secure them against increasingly virulent threats. Most computer users have encountered malware problems, usually spam, viruses, or man-machine intrusions enabling cybercrimes. But Conficker was an altogether different animal, a worm that “stood on the shoulders of two decades of research and development, trial and error . . . as much a product of evolution as anything in nature.”

This miracle of evolution was ingenious. Its code contained fewer lines than this review but was tightly encrypted. It would also automatically hide itself to evade detection; defeat the “system fixes” linked to internal computer clocks; and even keep infected computers from linking to Internet security providers.

Unrecognized and undetected, the worm spread like wildfire, eventually infecting over eight million computers worldwide.

Like rabbits, the worm’s mission was reproduction under any conceivable condition. Its offspring: Those latter-day electronic progeny known as botnets. Mark Bowden invites the reader to become Captain Kirk, suddenly discovering that Conficker has hijacked the Enterprise, making it part of a “vast robot fleet”—presumably commanded by Klingons. “The worm inside your machine is not idle. It is stealthily running, scanning for other computers to infect . . . working to prevent itself from being discovered and removed . . . and checking into its command center.”

Small wonder that the Conficker worm created near panic among the übergeeks comprising The Cabal, the irreverent nickname for the Conficker Working Group. If the Internet is in its Wild West Days, then The Cabal was a sheriff’s posse of cyber security experts from hi-tech giants like Microsoft to think tanks, academia, and independent troubleshooters.

In some of the book’s most thought-provoking passages, the author outlines the extreme fragility of the Internet, its cascading interdependencies where everything depends on everything else. One of those experts, Paul Vixie, likens those vulnerabilities to The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman’s classic history about the origins of the world’s first non-digital war.

What destruction might this worm-on-steroids have accomplished? And was it the long-feared electronic Pearl Harbor or just an off-Broadway rehearsal for the real Doomsday?

A Congressional report published just as Conficker appeared stated, “. . . Networks connected to the Internet are vulnerable even if protected with hardware and software firewalls and other security mechanisms.” Possible targets: banking, air traffic control, Social Security, waste and water treatment plants, as well as the national electric grid. “A successful attack on these Internet-connected networks could paralyze the United States.”

So how did the sheriff’s posse defeat Conficker? They cooperated and exchanged information, setting up “honeynets” to register, confine, and block the worm from penetrating the principal Internet domains. The trick: to out-flank the worm’s authors, because for every defensive measure hastily cobbled together, a diabolical new Conficker “configuration” would appear. When the worm finally went inert, one of the sheriffs noted, “Everyone deserves a pat on the back, but the game isn’t over . . . it just started.”

Well, maybe not everyone deserves one. The role of your Federal government? “Zero involvement, zero activity, zero knowledge.” When one of the sheriffs tried to brief the Feds, they slow-rolled him, passed off his briefing to the Obama White House as their own work, and then classified it! Later, the Department of Homeland Security shamelessly claimed credit for a “victory” they had nothing to do with—and barely even understood.

Although Worm is a more important topic, this book falls short of Mr. Bowden’s compelling storytelling in Blackhawk Down. His characters are never as compellingly drawn as the Army Rangers in Mogadishu nor are the shadowy geniuses behind Conficker as scary as the nameless legions of Mohammed Farah Aideed.

Worse, his later chapters reproduce pages of contending Cabal emails as well as some uneven prose: “The sheer volume of data being accumulated by all the domains Conficker C was programmed to generate required that the sinkholing operations be expanded. This was just one of the complications the botmaster apparently hoped would unravel The Cabal. It did not but it definitely added stress.”

Such irritants aside, the thumbs of every 30-something üntergeek will still Tweet in ecstasy at seeing technical terms like NCP/IP, Port 445, and MS08-067 spread across the pages of a mainstream book. But the rest of us should take Mark Bowden’s warnings with the utmost seriousness because of the growing threats to our wired world. And if you think Washington has the answers, it’s only because you haven’t asked the right questions.