Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book report on WORM: The First Digital World War

Mark Bowden's nonfiction Worm is about the sophisticated Conficker malware that infected millions of computers on the Internet in 2008, 2009 and onward.  It tells the movie-like story of how a group of programmers, network specialists and tech insiders (all civilians) came together to fight Conficker.

But in a way, it's not really about computers at all.  It's about people.  After all, people created the Conficker malware, and people banded together to stop it.  It wasn't a war in the sense of terse declarations from presidents and troops massing on borders.  Governments and their agencies played little role in the conflict, mostly due to ignorance and indifference.

This was more like a little town in an old Western movie where the locals join together to stop a group of bank robbers.  (Historical note: this actually happened in the Old West, and the townies often won.)  In this case, though, the people involved were not only very smart, they were experts in their field.  Inevitably, egos and agendas clashed.

Another human angle to this is the idea that millions of people use the Internet, but most of us have little idea how it works (especially some of our elected officials).  Ask someone to explain how the vast 'network of networks' functions, and they'll wave their hands and try, but they won't make much sense. 

Most people can't tell you what year they first used the Internet.  It's such a part of our lives now that it's hard to separate it from the rest of history.  Younger people will struggle with this question because they've always had the Internet, and have trouble imagining a world without it.

Bowden does a good job of humanizing the technical conflict between 'white hat' hackers and 'black hat' hackers.  The explanations are sometimes long, but always helpful, and you don't need to be expert to enjoy the book. 

A small side note: Writers try to find and fix all the editing errors in their books, but with hundreds of pages and thousands of words to search, it's a difficult task.  I was surprised to see a half dozen simple editing errors, though, because publishers like Grove Atlantic are usually good at producing error-free books.  (I know I've had errors in my own books, so I'm not throwing stones here.)

I read Mark Bowden's books because he picks interesting topics, and then finds the right people to tell him what happened.  Worm follows that pattern, and I look forward to more like this.

(The cover pic is from Grove Atlantic.)

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